The MOVE bombing was a Philadelphia tragedy — and an American one
If we take on a personal commitment to the truth, we could make Philadelphia the last American city that has to mark the day it destroyed a Black community.
On May 13, 1985, the City of Philadelphia bombed its own citizens. Officials used a Pennsylvania State Police helicopter to drop military-grade plastic explosive from a helicopter onto a rowhouse on Osage Avenue, starting a fire that killed six adults and five children. The house was headquarters and home to members of the Black liberation group MOVE. After the bombing, the city infamously “let the fire burn” until it destroyed 61 adjacent homes over three city blocks.
Philadelphia City Council members made a formal apology for the MOVE bombing last fall and committed to an annual day of remembrance beginning May 13, 2021. They hope these steps will help the city begin to heal.
But this story does not start, or end, in Philadelphia. It is an American story, and Philly can’t heal until America does.
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When the city decided to bomb MOVE, it followed a widespread and long-standing American practice: using tactics of war to silence, remove, and erase the existence of entire Black communities from their land. Philadelphia’s day of remembrance is an opportunity for America to face this horrific pattern. It is also an opportunity for our nation to end the silence surrounding attacks by government on its own people, and to heal the intergenerational trauma that Black Americans suffer because of that silence.
Few Americans are likely to recall the facts about MOVE. A radical naturalist group, MOVE questioned the legitimacy of a government built on the oppression and genocide of Black and Native peoples. Its members were not popular with all of their middle- and working-class Black neighbors. Their attempts to foster an alternative political and ecological lifestyle in an urban setting led to neighbors complaining of filthy conditions and speeches amplified from speakers. The day of the firebombing, MOVE members were involved in a shootout with police, who were sent to remove them from their home by force. A handful of MOVE members were met with 10,000 rounds of police ammunition before the bomb was dropped.
The day was a tragedy for Philadelphia. From a national perspective, it culminated decades of American cities bombing and burning Black homes and businesses, then obliterating the details from history. In 1901, it took a white mob, armed and assisted by the state militia, only hours to slaughter and banish the Black population of Pierce City, Mo., incinerating the homes of those who did not flee with the occupants still inside. It took more than 100 years for Texas to acknowledge the 1910 Slocum massacre, where, unimpeded by law enforcement, white locals executed every Black person they could find, then gave their abandoned farms, homes, and businesses to white residents. In 1912, there was the “racial cleansing” of Forsyth County, where white Georgians drove out all 1,100 Black residents at gunpoint, then extracted deeds to their properties from county government records as if those families had never existed.
And a century ago this year, Tulsa, Okla., experienced the Greenwood massacre, where the city deputized white residents to use ground and aircraft munitions to destroy a business district where Black people thrived, even under segregation.
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From Tulsa to Wilmington, N.C., to Rosewood, Fla., and Johnstown, Pa., there are many well-documented incidents of local governments removing Black people from their land through decree — or firebombing and slaughter.
These assaults were typically directed at communities of Black landowners who refused to submit to wanton racial violence and organized to fight back. When MOVE organized, Black communities in Philadelphia were resisting police extortion and payoffs, as well as excessive use of police harassment, intimidation, and shootings. Around the time of the Greenwood bombing, Black Tulsans were organizing to resist lynching.
These land-theft massacres have something else in common: Their stories went largely untold for decades. Local governments destroyed the physical evidence of attacks by concealing deeds to Black-owned land in Georgia or leaving the location of violence curiously unmarked, like the greensward at the site of the 1954 burning of Black homes in Vienna, Ill. In Philadelphia, unnamed remains of children from the MOVE bombing have been passed among academic institutions for anthropological study rather than returned to family for burial. Traumatized survivors around the country were silent for generations. It has taken decades for the full histories to surface. Only now have popular-culture stories like Watchmen and Lovecraft Country made the bombing of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street common historical knowledge.
» READ MORE: Lynchings, 1921 Tulsa massacre, and 8 other things school didn’t teach you about race in America | Will Bunch
While the City of Philadelphia has financially compensated families whose homes were destroyed in the bombing of MOVE, money is not enough to heal the relationship between the city and residents. As the State of Florida learned from its payment of reparations to descendants of the Rosewood massacre, telling the whole, painful truth is the thing that heals.
We cannot wait another century to tell this truth: The bombing of MOVE was one of many similar incidents of government warfare against its own people. America’s racial reconciliation requires acknowledging the story of what happened in Philadelphia as not an anomaly, but as one episode in a horrific pattern that still shapes cities, and the hearts of their citizens, across our nation. For Black Americans, officials still treat the right to own a home or build safe communities as a temporary arrangement, one revocable at any time for any reason, or for no reason at all. The hearts of non-Black people are shaped by this history too: Their American Dream was purchased with complicit silence born of terror that their communities could be next.
“We cannot wait another century to tell this truth: The bombing of MOVE was one of many similar incidents of government warfare against its own people.”
But Americans have the power to use Philadelphia’s day of remembrance to educate ourselves. We can ask our parents if they remember MOVE, and what they know about how this country has treated Black Americans’ right to safety and land in their lifetime. We can read news stories recalling the bombing, and think about what government violence against Black communities looks like today. As media recount the story of MOVE, we can listen closely for the voices of Philadelphians who lived through the bombing of Osage Avenue. Their telling their story, and our listening, are acts that begin to heal trauma. We can fold these stories into lesson plans, online book groups, and government staff meeting agendas. Instead of memorializing each event — in Philadelphia, Tulsa, or elsewhere — as singular horrors, we can use the day of remembrance to tell the true, cohesive story about who we as a nation have been.
If we each take on a personal commitment to sharing this truth, we could make Philadelphia the last American city that ever has to mark the day it bombed and destroyed a Black community.
If we fail to remember, we will continue our amnesia of the past and the violence it wrought.
Mistinguette Smith is the executive director of The Black/Land Project and a 2021 Encore Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.