20th Anniversary of Philadelphia's MOVE Bombing

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Ed Gordon looks back at the day 20 years ago when a 12-hour standoff between Philadelphia police and members of the radical group MOVE — armed separatists who preached a back-to-nature philosophy — came to a fiery end. Eleven people died when police dropped a bomb on the MOVE building's roof, and the fire spread through the whole city block, destroying 61 homes. A judge recently ordered the city to pay $12.8 million those who lost their homes that day.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Twenty years ago today, a 12-hour standoff between Philadelphia police and members of the radical group MOVE came to a fiery end when police bombed the group's heavily fortified house. The plan was to drop explosives from a helicopter and force MOVE members out of the group's headquarters that were located in a row house in a Philadelphia neighborhood. But things did not go according to plan.

(Soundbite of explosions)

Unidentified Man #1: We developed an explosive entry charge.

Unidentified Man #2: There's no way that I can describe the feelings that I have right now as a homeowner knowing that my home is burning.

Unidentified Man #3: It's a dense residential area. It's got back alleys. It was a hot fire. And we had the winds.

Unidentified Man #4: Sometimes you try something and you--it works, you're a genius. And other times when you try it, it turns out to be a disaster.

GORDON: Eleven people died that day, five of them children. The resulting blaze destroyed 61 homes. No one seemed more shocked by the tragedy than the man whose watch it took place under: Wilson Goode, Philadelphia's first black mayor. In a 1995 interview with NPR, he repeated what he first said 10 years earlier, that he knew nothing about the planned police bombing.

Former Mayor WILSON GOODE (Philadelphia): It is unfair for anyone to look at Wilson Goode and try to pigeonhole me to one day in my forty-year history in this city.

GORDON: Wilson Goode had come to power promising to heal Philadelphia's deep racial divide, part of which was reflected in ongoing confrontations between an often hostile white police force and MOVE dating back to 1978. Ramona Africa is one two survivors of the bombing. She put the responsibility for the attack squarely on Wilson Goode and other city and federal authorities.

Ms. RAMONA AFRICA (MOVE): Everything that we do is, you know, based on what we know this government has done to the organization--our, you know, babies that were killed, our sisters and brothers. And that fuels our commitment, you know, because we are not going to let them have died for nothing.

GORDON: Africa served seven years on conspiracy and rioting charges, but eventually won a federal civil suit against the city for more than a million dollars. Also, this April, a federal jury awarded 24 homeowners whose houses were burned to the ground more than $12 million. Johann Calhoun is the city editor for the black newspaper The Philadelphia Tribune. He says the MOVE bombing continues to reverberate citywide.

Mr. JOHANN CALHOUN (City Editor, The Philadelphia Tribune): What we received when we were talking to people out on the street, `How could they do something like that? How could they let those kids die?' You know, `What in the world were those politicians thinking when they had those cops go out there and, you know, to drop the bomb?' You know, when people think about black history, you know, they think about Martin Luther King. They think about Nelson Mandela. If they also think about white-on-black actions--whereas this situation here was black-on-black-on-black. That right there is black history.

GORDON: Johann Calhoun is the city editor for The Philadelphia Tribune, the country's oldest African-American newspaper.

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