MOVE Would Have Never Happened in a White Neighborhood

Let The Fire Burn

A scene from Let The Fire Burn.

A version of this story originally ran in 2012.

On May 13, 1985 at 5:20 p.m., a blue and white Pennsylvania State Police helicopter took off from the command post’s flight pad at 63rd and Walnut, flew a few times over 6221 Osage Avenue, and then hovered 60 feet above the two-story house in the black, middle-class West Philadelphia neighborhood. Lt. Frank Powell, chief of Philadelphia’s bomb disposal unit, was holding a canvas bag containing a bomb consisting of two sticks of Tovex TR2 with C-4. After radioing firefighters on the ground and lighting the bomb’s 45-second fuse—and with the official approval of Mayor W. Wilson Goode and at the insistence of Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor—Powell tossed the bomb, at precisely 5:28 p.m., onto a bunker on the roof. Read more »

Birdie Africa: The Lost Boy

Birdie Africa survived the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia

Birdie in the now-famous Michael Mally photo during the MOVE siege, May 13, 1985.
Photo by Michael Mally/Philadelphia Inquirer

HE WENT TO THE FIRE

The city was burning, and he went to the fire and got as close as he could. Something strange had just happened, something that would haunt the city for decades. A police helicopter had appeared in the sky above a West Philly rowhouse. The house was occupied by a black revolutionary group called MOVE. Seven adults and six children lived inside. The copter dropped a satchel onto the roof. The satchel contained four pounds of explosive. The explosion shook the neighborhood; people could feel it blocks away. Michael Mally gazed through his Nikon and took photos, as the flames leapt from home to home to home and the smoke rose in dark columns.

Mally was a staff photographer for the Inquirer. He knew, of course, the basic outline of MOVE—its back-to-nature philosophy, its history of confrontations with neighbors and police. The people inside the house all went by the last name of Africa, a practice begun by their founder and leader, a man born Vincent Leaphart who now called himself John Africa. Africa believed that modern technology had sapped black people of the ability to fight a racist system. In archival footage from Let the Fire Burn, Jason Osder’s astonishing 2013 documentary about the MOVE bombing, one MOVE member says, “We see John Africa the same way that people saw Jesus Christ.”
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