MOVE, the Philadelphia-based Black liberation and environmentalist organization, is best known for May 13, 1985. On that day, police bombed its communal home, killing 11 members—including five children. In a fire the mayor allowed to burn, about 60 neighboring homes were destroyed.

But that vicious bombing was far from the first police action MOVE experienced. During an August 1978 police raid of their first home that involved hundreds of officers, and their tear gas and water cannons, Philadelphia Police Officer James Ramp was killed. MOVE maintains that Ramp died by friendly fire. But nine MOVE members were convicted of the shooting and given sentences of 30 to 100 years.

These people—known as the MOVE 9—were among the dozens of U.S. political prisoners who received disproportionate sentences for their activism in the liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Over the last four decades, members of the MOVE Organization and their allies have been advocating to “Free the MOVE 9.”

As a result of this and additional community work, two of the MOVE 9 received parole this year: Debbie Africa was released in June. Her husband, Michael Africa Sr., came home in October. Their 40-year-old son, Michael Africa Jr., visited and talked to both of his parents while they were incarcerated. Last month, for the first time ever, Michael Jr. was united with both his parents outside prison walls. Weaving us through a 40-year struggle with state-sanctioned separation, here is Mike Jr.’s story, as told to writer Sheena Sood:

Born Behind Bars

My mother was seven and a half months pregnant with me on August 8, 1978, the day that hundreds of Philly cops raided my family’s home, the MOVE headquarters. Police said the house was a health hazard and that MOVE had to be evicted. My mother was one of the 12 adults in the house, and so was my father. There were about a dozen kids in the MOVE home that morning, including my sister, who was 2 years old at the time.

Police began shooting tear gas, water cannons and bullets inside the house early that morning. I’ve been told that the smoke and water created a vapor that made it hard to breathe and see. Then they started bulldozing the house while my family was still inside. People were forced to leave. As soon as they ran out, they were arrested.

During the siege, a cop named James Ramp was shot and killed with a single bullet. It was friendly fire. And yet my parents and 10 other MOVE family members were arraigned and processed. A month later, during the preliminary hearings, my mother secretly gave birth to me in the Philadelphia House of Corrections. She didn’t want the guards to know that I had been born for fear that they might harm or kill me.

I’m told it was the most celebratory time the prison had ever seen. To see a baby born inside a place so dangerous to the spirit of people was a godly experience. Everyone was singing and crying with joy. My mom kept me for three or four days without prison officials knowing. Although my mom’s attachment to me was growing, she knew she was going to have to let me go and face the reality of our separation.

The courts came to know about me when Janet Africa, my mom’s MOVE sister, announced my birth in court. I was told that the judge questioned the guards, ‘Is that true? Is that real?’ And the guards were like, ‘Um, no. That ain’t true!’ My aunt Janet said something like, ‘You can deny it all you want, but I was there. I saw it. She had a boy. He’s healthy and strong.’

Janet later told me, with tears in her eyes, ‘I didn’t want to separate you from your mom, but I announced your birth in court because I knew that if I didn’t get it on record, that you existed, they would have killed you and said you were never born. Just like they did Life Africa.’ Life was my aunt Janine’s baby. His skull was crushed during another violent police raid on the house in 1976.

After court my grandma took me home. Later my aunties, who were also involved with MOVE, and I went to Richmond, Virginia, to the organization’s sister chapter, Seeds of Wisdom. My mom’s MOVE sisters took care of me and other children there.

Meanwhile, my parents and seven other MOVE family members were tried together for Officer Ramp’s death. The prosecutor could not prove that nine people were responsible for one bullet, but that didn’t matter. On August 4, 1981, nine people were convicted of third-degree murder and sentenced to 30 to 100 years in prison. To this day, they maintain their innocence. People call them the MOVE 9.

Finding Out About My Parents 

Courtesy of Michael Africa Jr. From left: At a prom, Black girl in a white headwrap is cradled by a Black boy in a lavender jacket. At right: Same Black man and woman, both with locs, embrace more than 40 years later From left: Michael Africa Sr. and Debbie Africa at their high school prom in 1974. Right: After 40 years of imprisonment MOVE political prisoners Michael Sr. and Debbie Africa are reunited.

I was barely 3 years old when my parents were sentenced, and I didn’t know who they were. I was living in Richmond and the police seized that home, too. They arrested my aunts and put them in jail. The officers took me and the other kids—it must have been 15 of us—and put us in a foster home. I don’t remember this because I was so young, but I’m told we were abused: hair ripped out of our scalps, force-fed and beaten.

The only part I remember is the day my aunties liberated us, a couple weeks later. They had convinced the judge to let them visit us in the foster home. I remember getting in the back of this dark vehicle—later somebody told me it was a U-Haul truck. We left Virginia and headed to Philly. After we got back, my sister and I went to live with my grandma. My aunties were leaving MOVE and there was an understanding that my sister and I would come back to it when we could.

Somewhere around that time, I’d become more inquisitive about who my mom and dad were, but I didn’t tell my cousins what I was thinking. I was terrified of the answer and of them making fun of me. I’d recently found out that my grandma really was my [biological] grandma, and I felt like I could trust her. So one day, when nobody was around and it was just me sitting on her lap, I said, ‘Hey grandma, where’s my mom at?’

‘She’s in jail,’ she said. 

‘Why is she in jail?’

‘The police raided her house and took them to jail.’ 

‘Why did they raid the house?’

‘She was resisting the system. They wanted to stop her from speaking the truth. Your mother is so strong. She could do a hundred pushups, straight, when she was pregnant with you.’

My grandma then told me similar things about my father—about how fast he could run and how committed they both were to the environment, justice and life.

Meeting Dad For the First Time

Courtesy of Michael Africa Jr. A Black man with locs holds his small son and older daughter in his lap At left: Michael Africa Jr. and his sister visit their father at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Huntingdon in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. At right: Father and son during a visit at SCI Huntingdon.

One day, my grandma woke us up early and got us dressed. When I asked where we were going, she said, ‘We’re going on a trip.’ We arrived at a prison, checked in, and, before I knew it, my sister and I were hanging out with this guy. All of a sudden, he asks me if I knew who he was.

‘No,” I said.

‘Do you know what your name is?’

‘Yeah, Michael,’ I replied.

‘My name is Michael, too.’

I’m like, ‘All right. Where we going with this?’

It wasn’t clicking. I couldn’t guess who he was. Then he said, ‘Your name is Michael like my name is Michael because I’m your father.’

The moment that he shared that, I felt so secure to know I had one. The first thing I remember doing was reaching over and hugging him. We hugged for a while. I remember him crying and happy and smiling all at once. Then I grabbed his hand and said, ‘Dad, when we leave, can you come home with us?’ After he said no, I told him, ‘Yes you can. You can just walk right out the same door when we leave to go home.’ He said, ‘I want to, but I can’t.’

That’s my first memory of visiting my father in prison. I think my grandma decided to take me then because I was old enough to ask questions. After we left that day, my father began to call every week. Every Sunday morning around 10 o’clock, he would call the house. I remember sprinting down the steps to get to the phone:

‘This is a collect call from Michael Africa. Will you accept the charges?’

‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’

We would talk every week until he felt I was full. He’d be telling me all kinds of stuff, stories about my mom and how much he loved her and my sister. I remember feeling so good about my mom and dad’s relationship with each other and how my dad felt about her. This made me feel close to them as a couple.

My dad called every Sunday until he was home. But my mom was different: The prison didn’t allow her to call out like that. In the beginning, she called maybe every couple of months.

Connecting With Mom

Photo: Tommy Oliver/@producertommy A Black man with long locs smiles at his mother who also has long locs Michael Africa Jr. reunites with his mother, Debbie, after 40 years. She was paroled in June 2018.

The first time I remember visiting my mom, I was kind of mad because she hadn’t laid the groundwork with me the way my dad did. I didn’t tell anyone how I was feeling, but when I was older it started coming out in teenage rebellion and resentment: ‘You weren’t there,’ I would say. ‘Where were you while we were in the foster home?’

Plus my grandma was overprotective. She would barely let me leave the block, so I began to rebel and go wherever I wanted. I got away with it most of the time, but I also got in trouble a lot. My grandmother didn’t have the answers to my kind of personality. One day, she said, ‘You need to go back to MOVE. You need some principle.’

Returning to MOVE

It was 1992 and the perfect time. Ramona [Africa] was coming home [from prison], so I asked my mom if she would come and get us when she got out. ‘Mona got out on May 13, 1992, and the next day, she came and took me to my MOVE uncle’s house.

Going back to MOVE meant that I had to get reacquainted with the taste of raw food and always walking, running, swimming, working and staying active. It was hard, but I was so happy. I could feel myself getting stronger.

It was with MOVE that I started healing my relationship with my mom. MOVE people would tell me, ‘It’s not right to resent people and to carry around anger. You should try to remedy that.’ They pushed me to talk about why I felt resentful. I would talk about it and ask my mom questions. A lot of stuff was cleared up by simple explanations, her saying she wanted to be there and that she didn’t choose to go to prison. My dad helped a lot too.

I’ve been involved with the struggle to free my MOVE 9 family pretty much all my life. It’s felt challenging at times. When I was 10 years old I would dream of my parents’ freedom: my dad throwing a ball to me, my mom making dinner, maybe some little brothers and sisters. But I eventually stopped feeding the dream because it wasn’t happening. I did used to get depressed about it, but it was never a thing where I felt tired. The fact that they had life in their bodies gave me the hope, the fuel to know that we could do this.

It’s taken so much work from everybody for so many years to pressure the state to release MOVE members, being supported by activists, artists and even from District Attorney Larry Krasner who recommended my parents for parole.

Homecoming

Photo: Michael Africa Jr. A Black man with gray locs wearing a suit and a Black woman with locs wearing a red coat stand together In Philadelphia, in October 2018, Michael Sr. and Debbie Africa prepare to visit the graves of their parents, who passed away while they were in prison.

When my mom came home in June, it felt euphoric. She’s awesome! In some ways, the transition was seamless, but it was also bittersweet. Like one down, six more to go [Merle Africa and Phil Africa died in prison in 1998 and 2015, respectively]. We accomplished a mission, but it’s unfulfilled until the rest of the MOVE family comes home.

A few months later, my dad called to tell me he was granted parole. I kept it really quiet. I only told my wife, the kids and some MOVE family members who were going with me to get him. We got to the prison early that morning [on October 23] and had to wait in the lobby for an hour. It felt like forever. We were just sitting there, waiting. I could hear my heart beating loud. Next thing I know, a guard is pointing behind me. I turn around to see my dad entering the prison from behind us.

He’s holding this box. His eyes are red. Then he puts this box down. He grabs me, and he hugs me. We stood there for a good two or three minutes, hugging. That hug felt like finally. Then he hugged the other people and asked if we had clothes for him. ‘You know it,’ I said. ‘Mom packed your pants, underwear, undershirt, sweater, water. Come on, let’s go get changed.’ He said, ‘No, man, I need some more hugs.’

After he hugged everyone a few more times and changed his clothes, we began to walk out. People were screaming and blowing their horns and cheering for him. Even the guards were so happy he was getting out of there.

Seeing my mom and dad together for the first time has been special. At first, I thought they might be kind of weird adjusting. It’s been 40 years of them being separated. But they just went straight to each other and fell right back in. It was like they never missed a beat.

MOVE founder John Africa often said, ‘They can only stretch the bond; they can’t break it. The bond that moves is so strong.’ My parents merged seamlessly. 

Fighting as a Family

Now that we are together as a family, we’re definitely gonna enjoy our lives together. We are raising money, so my parents can rebuild. I see us continuing to work together to get our MOVE family members out. I also see us laying the groundwork for the Seed of Wisdom Foundation—building an educational facility and museum to expand the teachings of revolutionaries and revolutionary organizations in this area. I want this center to prioritize our health and inspire us as a movement.

The way I see it, all people—especially revolutionaries—need relief and to be in good health. Even the people who run the system need it, although I don’t really have any use for them. I feel like they’re at a disadvantage, honestly, because the people in this revolution are ahead of the curve. Together, we’re a powerful force. 

Sheena Sood is a Philadelphia-based healer, writer, educator, and activist scholar. She is completing her Ph.D. in sociology at Temple University. Her research explores the political mobilization of immigrant and Black and Brown communities at the intersections of ethnoracial identity, political alliances, and healing justice. As a yoga practitioner, Sheena fuses her commitment to liberation, abolitionist values and collective care by offering yoga and facilitating workshops within a decolonized, healing justice frame. 

Mike Africa Jr. is a husband, father, political activist, hip-hop artist and dedicated member of the Philadelphia-based MOVE organization. He has made it his life’s work to free the MOVE 9 political prisoners, including his parents Debbie and Mike, Sr. who were paroled in 2018. In addition to organizing for the release of the remaining MOVE 9 and Mumia Abu-Jamal, Mike is working to build an activist hub and community museum in Philadelphia through a non-profit organization he founded in 2017 known as the Seed of Wisdom Foundation (SOWF). The SOWF encourages young people to be physically active for healthy living and socially active to expose issues of environmental, animal rights and political injustices. Mike Africa Jr.’s memoir will be published in 2019 by Common Notions Books.