Let the Fire Burn: The MOVE Bombings 29 Years Later

MOVE members and police during the 1978 confrontation outside MOVE headquarters.

MOVE members and police during the 1978 confrontation outside MOVE headquarters.

It’s the week of the 29th anniversary of the MOVE bombings, and for those who were in the middle of it and are still with us, the memories of those tragic events still linger all these years later. As the haunting story unfolds in Jason Osder‘s Let the Fire Burn, which premieres tonight on Independent Lens on PBS (check local listings), you may be curious as to what became of some of the people involved.

[Much of the information cited here and linked is thanks to the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s 25th anniversary coverage.]

The saddest news of all is the very recent, sudden death of Michael Ward, aka Birdie Africa, who was the only child to survive the MOVE bombing. His mother Rhonda Africa was killed in the tragic event. Ward, only 41 at the time of his death, was on a cruise in the Caribbean with his family. Ward had fought through the pain of the awful events from his childhood to restart his life; from the New York Times obituary:

Yet after years of rehabilitation from injuries physical and psychological, he graduated from high school, served in the Army, became a father and made a career as a long-haul trucker and a barber.

Ramona Africa, the one adult survivor of the MOVE fire (and whom has an interesting quote of condolences in that article about Ward linked above), served seven years in prison on riot charges stemming from the 1985 confrontation. She later sued the city and pocketed part of a $1.5 million civil-rights judgment. She still lives in Philadelphia, and still upholds MOVE’s beliefs and causes. She said the group’s priority is still the “unrelenting fight for our brothers and sisters who’ve been in prison since 1978.” 

Meanwhile, she travels around the world – she’s been to Cuba, South Africa, and several European countries – spreading the message of John Africa. And as for MOVE itself, a current website shows the group to be still active.

Here’s Ramona Africa a few years ago talking to Philadelphia TV current affairs host Art Fennell, giving her perspective on what happened in that city in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Wilson Goode was mayor of Philadelphia for just over a year before being part of the MOVE maelstrom — his infamous words inspired the title to the film — but despite the controversy and the changing tide of public opinion about it, was re-elected mayor  in 1987. But an attempt to remain in the mayoral seat in 1991 was defeated as he was succeeded by former district attorney Ed Rendell.  Some would argue that Goode’s post-mayoral career — in which he’s worked in education and as a leader of prisoner outreach — initiated more positive change than as mayor; he’s currently a senior adviser to Public/Private Ventures where he oversees Amachi, a mentoring program for children of incarcerated parents. He was recently awarded the Purpose Prize, a $100,000 award given to exceptional individuals over age 60 who are working to address critical social problems.  [More on Wilson Goode in 2010.]

Here is an NBC News piece on Goode’s embattled mayoral reign, as he ran for re-election in 1987 (and in which he talks about the MOVE bombings):

As seen in the film, Police officer James Berghaier was one of the few law enforcement officers who clearly tried to do good in the MOVE conflagration when he risked his life to save young Birdie Africa, and is still haunted by the memory today. From that Phily.com piece:

2010: Berghaier, 60, has long struggled with the guilt he feels about not being able to save the other MOVE children. (He wasn’t aware they were there at the time.) He retired from the police force shortly after the MOVE confrontation and later divorced his wife. He bounced around to various jobs over the years, including working as a bar manager and as a janitor. Remarried, he lives in Northeast Philadelphia and works for a nonprofit agency.

Berghaier doesn’t think or talk about MOVE every day, but when he does, it clearly upsets him.

“I don’t act like this every day,” he said after getting teary during his interview. “I’ll probably find peace when I pass.”

Officer James Berghaier

Officer James Berghaier

And what of the townhome itself, the site of MOVE’s home and the bombing? 6221 Osage Avenue has had a difficult history, to say the least. From a 2005 USA Today article (and, sadly, as far as we can tell, very little has changed — see Google Maps, as of 2012):

Today, the site of the bombed house, 6221 Osage, is occupied by the police Civil Affairs Unit. The city rebuilt Osage Avenue, but the construction was so shoddy that years of repairs failed to fix the homes. Finally, the city condemned them and offered owners $150,000. Many took the buyout, but 24 families went to federal court. The city is appealing the judgment.

Explore more:

 NPR story: ‘Let The Fire Burn’: A Philadelphia Community Forever Changed

MOVE Bombing Still Leaves Philadelphia Scarred” [CBS News]

A lively post-film panel discussion with Ramona Africa, an emotional Officer James Berghaier, and filmmaker Jason Osder:

Trailer for Let the Fire Burn:

About Craig Phillips

ITVS/Independent Lens Interactive Editor and film nerd, based in San Francisco.
This entry was posted in Behind the FIlms, Independent Lens Season, Where Are They Now? and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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  • Sonny in Philly

    Rizzo’s enthusiasm that day to burn out an African American neighborhood will never be forgiven. That he has the nerve to run or mayor after that was an outrage. Fortunatley the voters of Philadelphia soundly rejected him. He should have gone to prison for ordering that bomb to be dropped.

    • Ben Taylor

      Frank Rizzo wasn’t in office on the day of the bombing. The mayor was Wilson Goode.

    • kittura

      Rizzo oversaw the OTHER MOVE incident on Powelton Avenue several years before the Osage Avenue incident.

    • Alan Turner

      Rizzo was Phialdelphia’s mayor for two terms, the second of which ended in 1980, five years before the MOVE conflagration. The mayor that you think should have gone to prison is W. Wilson Goode, Philadelphia’s first African-American mayor. Incredibly, he was re-elected after that disaster.

  • Joe

    I stumbled upon this documentary by accident last night on WNET, tackling a subject about which I knew nothing. Utterly riveting from beginning to end, I highly recommend this film to anyone who wants to learn about a significant chapter in American race relations.

    • blessthebeasts

      A very sad chapter too.

    • Amirica

      Super job, but it is not only covering race relations. Remember that the mayor was black. The gorilla in the room is government corruption. Our government has basically taken the place of the mafia, but with greater power. The power to even influence media coverage of events. Anything versus government is terrorist activity.

      • cybergrace

        Most overseers on plantations were Black. Many white plantation owners had sex with their Black slaves that resulted in children. AND still American slavery was completely based on white supremacy. The color of a few cogs does not change the nature of the system.

        • Jaime

          Would the POTUS be considered a cog?

          • Billie Holder Sinches

            yes and one who was shackled from the swearing in ceremony! I’m surprised they even gave him a room in the WHITE house!!

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  • http://wahwahpedal.blogspot.com/ catperson73

    I’m still stuck on how they never bothered to find out how the infant was murdered and what’s up with Louise James being an informant?

  • cybergrace

    By far the saddest news of all is that the MOVE children STILL, after 30 years, have 8 parents still in jail! The police admitted all the guns were props/non-working; James Ramp was shot in the back; Judge Malmed admitted publicly he had no idea who killed James Ramp; yet 8 innocent, loving parents/grandparents are in jail for a bullet fired by white Philadelphia police!

    Please interview current MOVE children (who were active in MOVE at that time) and their children. That would be an amazing follow up story & one PBS would be uniquely qualified to tell. Their spirits and stories are what everyone says they care about and why they dropped a bomb, but what do THEY say? Thank you, PBS. (http://move9parole.blogspot.com & http://onamove.com).

    • egamle

      This was not a black or white thing….why must EVERYTHING be blamed on that?! For some, it may have been, but this was mostly about ignorant humans making disastrously ignorant choices. On ALL SIDES in my opinion. Sorry, but if you want to gather people to live in one house together, board up the windows and have giant rat/roach infested piles of “compost” in your lawn, rip up the sidewalk & keep naked little kids with obvious distended tummies from lack of nutrition locked away like prisoners, I know I’d sure have a BIG problem with you! Not to mention if I was your neighbor and was FORCED to have MY freedoms impinged upon by constant megaphone broadcasted, profanity laced, uneducated ,lunatic-rantings about total B.S!

      And shame, shame on the city police, fire department, judges, news….man there is nooo way to know just how many other “people in charge” were involved in this nightmare tragedy. It’s pretty obvious to me, while watching “Let it Burn ” that many police officers should’ve lost their badges at the VERY least. I was disgusted, sickened, and horrified at the actions of ALL of them. The two officers found not guilty in the first run-in prior to the bombing totally mistifies me! Can we all say CORRUPTION!! Wow……how utterly shameful…..

      In my opinion, which is somewhat the same as the investigators comments at the end of the documentary, is that it was a mess…..and only the effort of the officer who tried to help Birdie were qualities of a human being who CARED ABOUT OTHERS MORE THAN HIMSELF. And I feel that way about the MOVE members, and all the city “thugs” who are supposed to keep us all SAFE. Like all SELFISH & IGNORANT choices we humans make, the ULTIMATE victims are the CHILDREN! Unable to be powerful enough to tell their radical kooky parents they don’t want to live in a CULT with them, they were drug threw all the poor choices & consequences of….only to burn alive by the OVER-THE-TOP POLICE & FIREFIGHTERS, MAYORS, JUDGES, & SOCIETY IN GENERAL. Oh, my bad, and the unfortunate people who lived in that neighborhood who lost EVERYTHING THEY OWNED by the fire! Lives are worth more. Especially helpless children who need protection from idiots who ultimately hold their fate & lives in their hands.

      If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. That goes for radical freaks, and people w/the power to harm or to help.

      • phillyguerrilla


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  • Ellen Sleeter

    For me, this story framed my post-baccalaureate life in Philadelphia, and I was so moved by the documentary. When I arrived at Drexel to start my MS in Aug of 1977, walking up Market Street from 30th St Station, there were helicopters overhead and a police stakeout in front of the Armory across the street from my office and the systems lab that I managed. The faculty were quick to point out this stakeThis police activity was simply the unpleasant residue of the police bust of the Powelton Village Move house — that house just 3 short blocks north of my office.

    In 1985, I was now working at a management consulting firm on Rittenhouse Square and teaching systems analysis at Drexel as an adjunct, in that same lab. Toward the end of the quarter, as I walked up Market, the street was full of sirens and emergency vehicles and, again, helicopters. I didn’t know the problem, but I was certainly associating West Philly with “police action”. The security guards in my building were glued to a tiny TV, and to radio, and briefed me on my way to class. As I was leaving the building at 10:30pm, the guard now told me of all the bad stuff they’d witnessed on live TV — the city was in flames. The next day I learned that the father of one of my employees lost his house on Osage Avenue, and while the father was spared injury, father was homeless and father’s and daughter’s lives were upended. Collateral damage…justified, because it’s war? Sigh.

    By August, 1985, I’d moved to Southern California and lost track of the Move story — except to learn from the national news that the replacement housing provided by the city was uninhabitable. I live in north Jersey now, “close in,” enjoying the culture that New York has to offer, but imagine that I will retire to Center City Philadelphia. This documentary filled so many important objective and emotional gaps I had in this experience. Thank you so much.

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  • phillyguerrilla

    Why has there been barely an mention of Rizzo’s involvement in the whole ordeal, in almost every piece of media I view?!

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  • bcbingram

    Did the thugs, endanger the fire department, and force them to move away …YES.

  • Otis Brown III

    Music reflection by yours truly of what I saw 30 years ago in West Philly as a 10 yr old when that happened…the sounds, the people…i knew the Wilsons who lived next door to the MOVE house. Friends of the family. Saw them building that bunker on visits there…then some time later, my mother and I had to console them as their home went up in flames like so many others…one of the darkest days of childhood…here’s the track at Youtube…

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  • http://www.elbeisman.com leticiacortez

    And here I’m thinking I’m an informed person, yet I knew nothing about the bombing of MOVE. I heard it today in Democracy Now & I can’t wait to see the video. This only shows that Philadelphia has a bloody history. Bombing a neighborhood that killed 11 people including 5 children is an act of terrorism by the police.

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