The MOVE Bombing and the Callous Handling of Black Remains

tags: racism, African American history, Police, Philadelphia, MOVE

Jessica Parr teaches at Simmons College in Boston and is an Affiliate Assistant Professor of Women Studies at the University of New Hampshire, Durham. She's primarily interested in African American print culture, and religious and political thought. Her first book, Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2015. Follow her on Twitter @ProvAtlantic.

The 1985 MOVE bombing by the Philadelphia Police shocked and devastated a city, leaving destruction that killed 11 people, including 5 children, leveled 61 homes, and rendered over 250 Philadelphians homeless. The bombing, occurring just two days after a shootout involving police, used an explosive device that included C-4 on homes that were known to be occupied by children. This escalated the mistrust of government and police by many of the city’s residents. Among those who were killed was John Africa, the founder of MOVE, a Black revolutionary, Korean War veteran, and native Philadelphian. Like its founder, the group was anti-government, anti-technology, and anti-capitalist. Neighbors had complained about noise and disruption by MOVE members. But the decision by a government agency to bomb MOVE over noise complaints raised many concerns. To some observers, the bombing gave credibility to the group’s fears about government overreach, particularly since the group has been outspoken about police brutality since its founding. These observations found affirmation elsewhere. A federal jury would find the city of Philadelphia and two of its officials liable for the bombing.

The memory of the bombing has not faded among Philadelphians, or African Americans generally, particularly since concerns around police brutality against Black Americans continue. As more than a few posts on social media noted, the conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd was a small step toward accountability, but there are debates about whether its enough of a step to be considered justice. Sixteen-year-old Ma’Kiah Bryant was shot and killed by police the same day Chauvin’s guilty verdicts were rendered.

But beyond the broader discussions of race and policing, another story broke about what happened to the five children who were killed by the MOVE bombing. The day after the Chauvin verdict, a report revealed that the remains of two of those children had been housed on a shelf in cardboard boxes in the collections of the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania for decades, and the boxes were not in climate-controlled storage. The remains were given to researchers at Princeton University at some point, but the university now reports that they do not have them, and they do not know where they are.

The Penn Museum is no stranger to being under fire for its treatment of Black human remains. For over a century, it held the Samuel Morton Collection of Human Crania, a collection of skulls of enslaved Black people and Native Americans that Morton used for phrenology, a form of scientific racism that was used to draw links between race, skull shape, and intelligence. Morton’s research drew on Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus’s 1735 treatise Systema Naturae, in which Linneaus argued for four varieties of man, corresponding with Europe, America, Asia, and Africa. Linnaeus revised his treatise in the 1750s to include skin color, additional physical characteristics, geography, and moral traits. His work, and that of contemporaries like Immanuel Kant (German), David Hume (Scottish), and Morton, influenced the concepts of race in both the 18th and 19th centuries with frequently detrimental and dehumanizing effects on people of Indigenous, African, and Asian descent. Among other things, Morton’s “experiments” were used to justify Indian Removal in the 1830s and 1840s as well as being part of a broader pattern of non-consensual experimentation on Black people for medical purposes—experiments involving gynecologyinoculation for the protection of white enslavers, cancer research (see especially Henrietta Lacks), and syphilis (see the Tuskegee Experiment) are among the many areas where Black subjects were used without their consent. 

Read entire article at Black Perspectives

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