When Fran Opher’s mother, Pauline, died on March 8 at age 85, some Kingsessing Avenue neighbors took time to visit her daughter and note the passing of one of the block’s oldest residents.
Opher was especially touched – but not surprised – by a “lovely floral arrangement” that came with a card signed “The Africa Family.”
That’s Africa as in MOVE, the radical, self-described back-to-nature group that figured so prominently – at times traumatically – in Philadelphia history over the last 30 years.
The observations of Opher and other Kingsessing residents yield a more complex portrait of today’s MOVE, a group whose rhetoric is still radical but whose lifestyle has evolved and, in the view of some, mellowed.
MOVE today has about three-dozen members, ranging in age from those in their late 50s to young children, the great-grandchildren of some original members.
Most are African American, a few are white. And though a few members have left, MOVE has remained fairly cohesive, with children staying on into adulthood.
While a few MOVE members own homes in Cherry Hill and elsewhere in West Philadelphia, most live communally in both units of a large, well-kept gray-stone three-story Victorian twin in the 4500 block of Kingsessing Avenue across from Clark Park.
Both halves were purchased in 1991 for $265,500 by Alberta Wicker Africa, now 57, the widow of MOVE founder John Africa and in many ways the spiritual leader of the group.
MOVE is still a group that finds itself embroiled in controversy, most notably the bitter custody dispute several years ago between Alberta Wicker Africa and John Gilbride, her ex-husband, who angered MOVE by leaving the group and trying to obtain custody of the couple’s young son.
Gilbride, 34, was shot to death in the parking lot outside his Maple Shade apartment on Sept. 27, 2002, the night before his first unsupervised visit with the boy.
His slaying remains unsolved. MOVE members have denied having anything to do with it.
Though MOVE maintains its original back-to-nature anti-technology stand, it has adapted to the Internet age. It has its own Web site, including a link promising MOVE merchandise “coming soon,” and Pam Africa has a Web site to champion the cause of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former radio reporter serving life for the 1981 slaying of Officer Daniel Faulkner.
The Internet has also provided a forum for Tony Allen, a former MOVE member who last year left the group with his wife, Lori, after eight years. Allen has become MOVE’s principal antagonist through his Web site MOVE Watch.
Allen’s tales from the inside are of long “interrogation/therapy” sessions to correct errant members and of an organization that has strayed from its once-austere all-natural diet to include cooked meat and even junk food.
On the other hand, Allen has also written that he never saw any MOVE members with guns. In the 1970s and ’80s, members patrolled their front porch brandishing weapons.
That would seem to point to what Kingsessing neighbors say: MOVE seems to have mellowed.
“They are good neighbors, but I know that doesn’t make a good story,” said Lewis Mellman, a 10-year resident who lives across from the MOVE house.
Mellman said that the MOVE he knows helps clean up the block and pitches in with neighbors to maintain trees and other plants in Clark Park.
In some ways, MOVE today has two faces.
There are veterans such as Ramona Africa, 49, the only adult survivor of the 1985 fire.
She and Pam Africa are MOVE’s most visible standard-bearers, speaking around the world – San Francisco, France, Spain, Italy – for freedom for eight MOVE members in Pennsylvania prisons since the 1978 police stand-off that ended with the death of Officer James Ramp.
And then there is the MOVE represented by the family group that lives in the Kingsessing Avenue house, which is nearly impossible to distinguish from its neighbors.
On a recent afternoon, the sounds of children at play echoed from the backyard, equipped with a large above-ground pool and swing sets. It looked more like a neighborhood day-care center than a radical group’s headquarters.
Said Opher: “In all these years, they have not created any problem for this neighborhood… . The fact is, people grow up and people change.”