‘MOVE 9’ Member, 74, Dies 6 Months After Release from 42 Years in Prison
Delbert Orr Africa — “Del” to his friends, a longtime member of the Philadelphia-based black liberation group MOVE, has died at the age of 74, just six months after being released from prison, where he spent 42 years after being dubiously convicted of murdering a police officer during a 1978 police attack on the group’s home.
Yvonne Orr-El, Africa’s daughter, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that her father died of prostate and bone cancer, and that he did not receive adequate medical care while incarcerated for the first 18 months after noticing symptoms.
“Had my father received the treatment he needed, the healthy, strong, smiling, humorous, sarcastic man that I called my father would still be here today,” she said in front of a MOVE-owned house in the 4500 block of Kingsessing Avenue.
“What happened to Delbert was just another example of George Floyd,” added MOVE member Janine Africa. “Delbert was deliberately, methodically, calculatedly murdered by prison officials.”
Pam Africa — MOVE members changed their surnames to Africa to show reverence for their mother continent — said that Delbert would go down in history as “an uncompromising, revolutionary freedom fighter who fought for the lives of all.”
MOVE was founded in Philadelphia in 1972 by John Africa. Delbert, a former Black Panther, joined that same year. The group’s communal living, anarcho-primitivism and revolutionary ideology alienated its West Philadelphia neighbors and led to running conflict with police and city government, which was then ruled by the racist “law and order” mayor Frank Rizzo.
Rizzo, a former police commissioner known for framing black activists and for his enthusiastic embrace of police brutality, once called for the lynching of Black Panthers. During his 1975 re-election campaign, the mayor told reporters that after he won, he was “going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.” During an unsuccessful bid for a third term, he urged the city to “vote white.”
In response to community complaints, Philadelphia police in 1977 obtained a court order demanding MOVE members vacate their communal home at 311 North 33rd Street in the Powelton Village neighborhood. A 14-month standoff ensued, with Mayor Rizzo ordering a blockade and utility cutoff in a bid to starve the group out. But MOVE would not be moved and the blockade failed. The city’s heavy-handed tactics initially engendered broad support for the activists.
On August 8, 1978 Rizzo ordered a full-scale police assault on the MOVE house, vowing to “drag them out by the backs of their necks… children or not.” Police used a bulldozer and a cherry-picker to destroy the home as terrified children and adults huddled inside. When officers tried to enter the home gunfire erupted; police claim MOVE members fired on them first, while MOVE said they never fired a shot. One officer, James J. Ramp, was killed by a shot to the back of his neck. MOVE members insisted he was killed by “friendly” fire from fellow officers.
“Ain’t no doubt about it,” Delbert Africa said in a prison interview for a 1987 episode of PBS Frontline. “We didn’t fire. That’s why they want to cover it up.”
The MOVE members were no match for the heavily-armed police and so they surrendered. “I had no other choice so I came out,” Delbert recalled, “and that’s when the cops jumped up and down on my head and my groin, right in front of international TV — the same cops who said I came out of there armed.”
In video of his arrest, Delbert Africa is clearly unarmed, with his hands raised above his head. He was then brutally kicked and beaten by a group of officers as he laid helpless on the ground. Delbert Africa described his ordeal in a 2018 Guardian interview. “A cop hit me with his helmet,” he said. “Smashed my eye. Another cop swung his shotgun and broke my jaw. I went down, and after that I don’t remember anything till I came to and a dude was dragging me by my hair and cops started kicking me in the head.”
Robert Hurst, who at the time was president of the Philadelphia Policeman’s Union, defended the brutality. “I’d have buried him,” he told PBS. Three of the officers who brutalized Delbert Africa were charged with assault and found innocent by a local judge.
Delbert Africa and eight of his MOVE comrades — Chuck, Debbie, Eddie, Janine, Janet, Merle, Michael and Phil Africa — were convicted of third-degree murder in connection with Ramp’s death. They were each sentenced to 30 to 100 years in prison.
While the MOVE 9 languished behind bars, other members of the group eventually moved to a new home at 6221 Osage Avenue in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood of West Philadelphia. The group’s boisterous presence again led to tensions with neighbors and in 1985 the city — now led by Wilson Goode, its first black mayor — classified them as terrorists. On May 13, 1985 nearly 500 police officers attempted to evict and arrest MOVE members. Another standoff ensued, with police attacking the home with chemical agents as some MOVE members defended themselves by firing at their attackers.
Police then fired more than 10,000 rounds at the home but still could not force the 13 people inside out. Finally, a police helicopter dropped bombs containing military-grade explosives on the roof of the house, sparking a firestorm that destroyed over 60 homes and an entire city block. Of the 13 people in the MOVE house, only two survived, Ramona Africa and a child, Birdie Africa. John Africa, five other adults and five children ages 7 to 13 suffocated or burned to death inside their home. Delbert’s 13-year-old daughter Delisha was one of them.
It was the second time that American civilians were subjected to aerial bombardment. In 1921 white mobs, motivated largely by jealousy, looted, burned and slaughtered their way through the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as the “Black Wall Street” for its prosperity, killing and injuring hundreds of black men, women and children. Airplanes dropped firebombs on homes, businesses and fleeing families in what has since been recognized as the single worst episode of racial violence in US history. “Now you have this clown [Trump] who wants to visit Tulsa, where the Black community was bombed in 1921 just like they bombed us in 1985,” Delbert’s daughter Yvonne told Worker’s World.
News of the MOVE massacre and the death his daughter devastated Delbert Africa. “I just cried. I wanted to strike out,” he told the Guardian. “I wanted to wreak as much havoc as I could until they put me down. That anger, it brought such a feeling of helplessness.”
Although a city commission called the MOVE bombing “unconscionable” and Mayor Goode formally apologized, no city official was ever criminally charged in the attack. The only person who was charged was Ramona Africa.
Free At Last
Merle Africa died in prison in 1998 at the age of 47. The surviving MOVE 9 members were eligible for parole beginning in 2008 but all were denied. Phil Africa died in 2015; he was 59. In June 2018 Debbie Sims Africa became the first of the seven remaining members to be released. That October her husband, Michael Davis Africa, was paroled. In May 2019 Janet and Janine Africa were freed after 41 years behind bars. The following month, Eddie Goodman Africa was released on parole. Delbert Africa was paroled on December 20, 2019. The last of the surviving MOVE 9, Chuck Sims Africa, was freed on February 7, 2020.
In a post-release press conference, Delbert Africa said he wouldn’t be completely free until his movement brothers were free too. “I wish that Phil and Merle could have been here with us today,” he said. “Once we get Chuck [Africa] out, once we free Mumia [Abu-Jamal], we’ll have all that MOVE contingent free and out there on the streets doing their thing.”
Indeed, numerous black liberationists are still imprisoned in a country that claims to have no political prisoners while it condemns and sanctions other nations for jailing their dissidents.
MOVE is still here. Rizzo is long dead, his statue finally torn down by the city in the wake of the outrage following the white supremacist murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.
Delbert Africa remained defiant until the end. When asked in 2018 if he felt any remorse for Ramp’s death, he replied, “How can I have any remorse for something I never did?”
“I had nothing to do with killing a cop in 1978,” he told the Guardian. “Have they shown any remorse for what happened to my daughter in 1985?”
To his surviving daughter Yvonne, “Del” Africa is “someone who taught the world how to learn to love and know how to have pride within himself to understand what the system really does to us.”
Delbert Africa, Rest In Power.