The post-mortem medical records of the six adult members of the Africa family and five children lost in the MOVE bombing are painful to read. In describing traumatic deaths resulting from fire and damage from the home’s collapse, they reference extensive burns, missing organs, and missing limbs. But understanding how these people were treated in their last moments of life makes the manner in which family remains have been handled in death less surprising.
While the unfolding story of the remains has rightly horrified the public, it echoes decades of disbelief toward authorities’ actions that persists in the absence of broad public understanding of the bombing itself.
Medical records that describe the deaths of the 11 people killed in the bombing are filed in boxes at Temple University’s Special Research Collection. The archives contain records, notes, and evidence collected by the Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission, appointed by then-Mayor Wilson Goode to determine the events that led up to the bombing, and what unfolded that day. The commission’s work culminated in five weeks of televised hearings on WHYY that included 92 witnesses. Its public report was sharply critical of city government.
Yet despite this documentation, the MOVE bombing remains unknown to many in the region, even in an era of renewed reckoning with systemic racism and police brutality. Apart from the archives, which are publicly available only by appointment, few “official” records exist. The archives, news coverage, and even the handful of books on the topic leave questions unanswered.
I know this because I spent 2½ years researching and writing a doctoral dissertation on media coverage and public memory of the MOVE bombing. I completed my Ph.D. at Temple University in 2020 and spent half of 2019 in the archives and half of 2020 conducting interviews with journalists and others with firsthand knowledge of the bombing.
With the important exceptions of the Philadelphia Tribune and WURD radio — whose deeper and more critical coverage include WURD’s extensive anniversary broadcasts — much of the coverage over the last 36 years has recounted the events of May 13, 1985, with insufficient context. For decades, the bombing has been filtered through inverted narratives as an anomaly for much of white Philadelphia, and part of an ongoing history of violence for Black Philadelphians.
Last November, City Council voted to formally apologize for the bombing and establish May 13 as “an annual day of observation, reflection and recommitment.” But what does it mean to remember and reflect on a tragedy we never properly understood, aspects of which are still in dispute?
Understanding the MOVE bombing and the conditions that permitted it to happen is the responsibility of all Philadelphians. And the resources for us to do so are there. The documentation around MOVE people’s remains and the archives at Temple are part of a constellation of artifacts and public history throughout the city that have never been organized for public understanding. After 36 years, the place the public can easily go to learn about the bombing is a historical marker on Cobbs Creek Parkway, 387 feet away from 6221 Osage Ave. It dispatches with the entire affair in just 45 words.
In 1985, 11 commissioners were appointed by the mayor to form and share conclusions about the MOVE bombing. After more than 1,000 interviews with city officials, police officers, firefighters, neighbors, and others, the commission ended its report with 38 recommendations specific to improving city operations. Some, like a review of interdepartmental coordination among the Philadelphia Police Department and the implementation of more rigorous emergency planning, were undertaken right away. But police-community relations remain strained.
In 2021, we understand that learning about MOVE is both an unfinished and necessary project. As we near the first day of remembrance, it will take a new MOVE commission to complete this work and so make possible meaningful, citywide reflection.
Like the first commission, its success will hinge on the ability to convene individuals and institutions — including those of higher education, city government, the news media, and law enforcement – who might not otherwise be working together. And like the first commission, it should be composed of neighbors to the bombing, civic leaders, educators, and others from a variety of perspectives and professions. Black Philadelphians must be centered.
Such a commission could help us learn how to reflect on May 13 by making new recommendations around public memorials and by reviving an unresolved narrative that has languished for too long. It could be charged with identifying resources like the archives at Temple, perhaps leading an effort to make them more widely available. And ultimately, it could establish a public curriculum for Philadelphians — and others — to better understand the events and conditions prior to the bombing, the people of Cobbs Creek who were displaced, the Africa family, and the aftermath.
Observation, reflection, and recommitment are impossible without a shared understanding of what happened on May 13, 1985, and why. A second MOVE commission could help us get there.
Shannon McLaughlin Rooney serves as vice president of enrollment management and strategic communication at Community College of Philadelphia. @sionnan