The announced revamp of the African American History curriculum in Philadelphia schools will come closer to demands made 56 years ago by requiring a section on MOVE. On Nov. 17, 1967, over 3,000 Philadelphia students peacefully marched from their schools to the former Philadelphia Board of Education building, calling for 25 changes to the School District of Philadelphia, which included teaching Black history. Immediately after the walkout, Philadelphia started to incorporate Black history into the curriculum. But it wasn’t until 2005 that the district made taking a class in the subject a graduation requirement for all students. Philadelphia was the first school system in the United States to do so.

The District is currently developing fresh coursework for the Black history curriculum for the first time since 2005. The history of MOVE is included in that revamped curriculum. 

MOVE was a commune that combined Black revolutionary ideas with a back–to–nature movement, whose run–ins with the city of Philadelphia culminated in the Police Department bombing their house on May 13, 1985. The curriculum is being developed with the help of Mike Africa Jr., an activist and member of the MOVE family, who has maintained documents from and associated with the group. An emphasis will be placed on learning from primary sources rather than from textbooks and will seek to include community voices.  

MOVE was founded in 1972 (and is still around today) as the Christian Movement for Life. Members lived according to the teachings of John Africa, who developed a spiritual philosophy based on the sanctity of all living things. The name isn’t an acronym; John Africa believed that life was defined by movement. After fighting in the Korean War, he was horrified by the violence the United States brought upon the Korean people. Indeed, people’s corpses certainly didn’t “move.” 

The members of MOVE changed their last names to “Africa,” wore their hair in dreadlocks, and staged disruptive but nonviolent protests for environmental rights and against animal cruelty, war, and police brutality. Walter Palmer, adjunct professor at Penn and founder of the W.D. Palmer Foundation, was a chief negotiator between MOVE and the city. Reflecting on MOVE’s philosophy. He says, “I mean, it was brilliant in terms of how they took bits and pieces out of the so–called mainstream society and used it against mainstream society.”  

MOVE’s tactics created tension with their neighbors and the police. After the mayor at the time, Frank Rizzo, attempted to stick MOVE with health code and weapons violations and, eventually, an eviction order, the city and MOVE engaged in a 15–month–long standoff in 1978 that ended in a shootout, the death of a police officer, and the arrest of nine members of the group. After that incident, MOVE relocated to 6221 Osage Avenue in Cobbs Creek from their previous house in Powelton Village. At their new residence, MOVE would shout over loudspeakers day and night, calling for the release of their imprisoned brothers and sisters. The noise upset their neighbors, who filed many complaints with Rizzo’s successor, Wilson Goode, Philadelphia’s first Black mayor. 

MOVE spent three years on Osage Avenue until Goode obtained a search warrant with the help of District Attorney Ed Rendell. On the night of May 12, the police evacuated the surrounding area. The next morning, at 6 a.m., Gregore Sambor, the police commissioner at the time, shouted through a bullhorn: “Attention, MOVE! This is America! You have to abide by the laws of the United States!” and demanded they evacuate their house. MOVE resisted into the afternoon, even after the police shot 10,000 rounds of ammunition at the house. It was at this point that Goode, who was not present at the scene, authorized the release of a satchel bomb on 6221 Osage.  

Ramona Africa, who survived the bombing along with Birdie Africa, recalled in a Vox oral history, “We immediately tried to get our children, our animals, ourselves out of the burning building. We were hollering, 'We’re coming out!' [The cops] immediately started shooting, trying to prevent anybody from coming out of that house. We were forced back in at least twice.” As a result of the bombing, the gunfire, or both, 11 MOVE members, including John Africa, were killed, and 61 houses were destroyed. No one was ever charged for the attack. Ramona Africa went on to serve seven years in jail for rioting and conspiracy charges from arrest warrants from before her house was bombed. 

In a press conference after the bombing, Goode said, “There was no way to avoid it. No way to extract ourselves from that situation except by armed confrontation.” Goode’s comment encapsulated the typical response to the event, according to Dr. Shannon Rooney, vice president for Enrollment Management and Strategic Communications at the Community College of Philadelphia, who wrote her dissertation on how the news media covered MOVE before, during, and after the bombing. She asserts that news coverage immediately after the bombing insinuates that MOVE “got what was coming for them” because of their disruptions to their neighbors and the city more generally. Subsequent coverage lacks any substantiation of the racist systems that allowed the city to bomb its own citizens and how the city should reckon with this horrific incident. As professor Palmer puts it, “The question is, at what point in time does a sanitation issue or health issue rise to the level of a bombing?”  

Indeed, the failure of the media to place the MOVE bombing within a greater arc of police violence against Black people in America has contributed to the history of MOVE largely fading into obscurity, both locally and nationally. According to Dr. Rooney, many journalists at the time viewed the MOVE bombing as “just this crazy thing that happened in Philly.” The idea that the bombing was self contained within Philadelphia made it hard for the story to spread and stick in the national consciousness. It wasn’t until Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2022 that the media explicitly referred to the MOVE bombing as direct police violence.  

Philadelphia resident and Penn student David Kedeme (C ’25) attended Central High School in Philadelphia, where African American History is a mandated course. He reflects, “Police brutality didn’t only start now. Like, that was a major misconception that I also had when the [George Floyd incident] started, which the MOVE incident shows that it really didn’t.”  

Dr. Rooney also contests that the inadequate news coverage around MOVE has contributed to its obscurity. Most people who know about MOVE know about it from news coverage. Therefore, since it largely isn’t taught in schools, “if the news coverage is a little bit muddy, a little bit insufficient, then it's going to fade from public memory, because how else will people know about it? Except for the folks who lived on that block and who tell their friends,” Dr. Rooney says.  

America’s hazy memory of MOVE underscores the importance of its addition to the Black history curriculum. The history of MOVE is part of both Philly and national history and should be included in any Black history course taught in Philadelphia schools. Reil Abashera (C ’25), who also attended Central, agrees: “I think [MOVE] is a critical part of African American history.” After learning about MOVE in her International Baccalaureate history class senior year, she was surprised that it hadn't been discussed in the Black history course that she took her sophomore year. She now views her sophomore year history course curriculum as “cookie cutter” and “teacher dependent," but the addition of MOVE to the curriculum is a step in the right direction for addressing these insufficiencies: “I think adding [MOVE] into the curriculum and having teachers basically be forced to teach it will probably get other conversations started.”  

Both Reil and David lament a lack of in–depth discussions about race in their history classes at Central, believing that it is through discussion that people make connections between history and today. As David notes, history is most useful when employed to understand the roots of today’s inequalities. 

The District’s announcement coincides with a time where Black history courses are being contested and stripped down locally and nationally. College Board is cutting major portions of its Advanced Placement course in Black studies. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a key proponent in the charge against Black history education, has proposed curriculum changes to include courses on Western civilization aimed at avoiding “ideological conformity” in higher education. If anything, MOVE demonstrates that a lack of education is what breeds “ideological conformity." When parts of history are being contested, according to professor Palmer, “it forces people who, for the most part, think of those things being important, to rise up.” 

The history of MOVE is vitally important, and Philadelphia is finally starting to grapple with its own history.