Decades after 11 people were killed and dozens of homes were destroyed in Philadelphia when police deployed a bomb, the city has issued its first official apology.
Tensions between police and MOVE, a Black liberation group, had been brewing since the 1970s and culminated with the deadly bombing in West Philadelphia on May 13, 1985 after city officials decided to evict the group.
Last week, the city council passed the resolution after the measure was introduced earlier in this year to coincide with the 35th anniversary.
The apology comes just weeks after officials in Greensboro, North Carolina, formally apologized for the deaths of five people during an attack by Ku Klux Klan members and the American Nazi Party, and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey offered a formal apology to a survivor of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing.
These public gestures have been long overdue in Philadelphia and other cities and while they are welcomed, it remains to be seen whether they will lead to restorative justice, said Niambi Carter, Howard University political science professor.
Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier, who sponsored the measure, said the pain caused by the bombing has contributed to the ongoing distrust between police and residents – something that became evident when protests erupted after Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old Black man, was killed by police last month.
“I don’t know that an apology is going to be enough to really address the emotional toll that those events took on those communities,” said Carter whose research focuses on racial and ethnic politics in the US.
A step toward healing, but is it creating real change?
MOVE emerged in the early 1970s and became known for holding demonstrations against war and police brutality. Tensions with the Philadelphia Police Department soon followed and escalated in 1978 to a gun battle in Powelton Village that left one police officer dead and nine of the group’s members arrested and convicted.
Some of the remaining members settled into a rowhouse in West Philadelphia, just six blocks from where Wallace was shot last month. They campaigned for the release of their jailed members, prompting neighbors to complain about the group’s loudspeakers and appealing to authorities for help. City officials decided to evict the group and arrest some of them, leading to the May 13, 1985, shootout and bombing. Eleven people were killed and 61 homes were destroyed.
Police fired 10,000 rounds of ammunition into the rowhouse on the 6200 block of Osage Avenue and then dropped military-grade explosives on the house, burning an entire city block to the ground.
Although surviving MOVE members and displaced residents cannot get back lost time, Carter says, they should be included in the city’s plans to build conditions that would not give rise to similar events happening again.
A special commission appointed by then-Mayor W. Wilson Goode to investigate the bombing concluded that “dropping a bomb on an occupied row house was unconscionable.”
Earlier this year, Goode called for an apology from the city in The Guardian, saying “it would be helpful for the healing of all involved.”
Gauthier also hopes the city council’s apology is a step toward toward healing.
“I know that it’s symbolic, but I also hope that it can be the start of the real listening and conversation and relationship building that we need to happen in the city,” she said.
“In order to evolve and progress towards a more equal and just society, we must confront, reflect upon and learn from heinous government actions of the past,” says the Philadelphia City Council resolution apologizing for the 1985 MOVE bombing.
The resolution will also establish a formal day of remembrance on May 13 to observe the legacy of the explosion and the city government’s actions that led to it.
The apologies are meaningful, observers say, but they run the risk of becoming hollow words if they are not followed by further actions that prevent similar events from happening again.
“We still live in world where the conditions still exist for these type of atrocities to occur,” said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University.
Alabama governor apologizes for 1963 Birmingham church bombing
Jeffries, whose work focuses on African American history and the Civil Rights Movement, says the pain and absence of justice has made it difficult for many Black people to deal with the impact of the Birmingham church bombing and other events while for White people it’s more because they are “an indictment of the present.”
Earlier this year, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey offered a formal apology to a survivor of the 1963 Birmingham bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church, calling it “one of the darkest days in Alabama’s history.”
Although three Klansmen were convicted of the bombing (though two of them were not prosecuted until the 2000s), the survivor, Sarah Collins Rudolph, said she was never offered payment for her experience, nor medical care or an official apology.
Ivey’s apology came two months after attorneys for Collins Rudolph wrote a letter to the governor in July, requesting a formal apology and restitution for the losses she suffered as a result of the bombing.
Collins Rudolph, who was 12 at the time, was in the church basement on September 15, 1963 with four other Black girls between the ages of 11 and 14, when the attack occurred. Her sister was killed and she lost vision in one eye.
Jeffries, who gave a TEDxOhioStateUniversity talk themed “Why we must confront the painful parts of US history” earlier this year, also points to the need for Americans to deal with the past and recognize how past acts of violence against Black people impact race relations today.
“The reluctance to deal with the past, particularly for White Americans, when we’re dealing with these sort of racial atrocities is that it says as much about the people who live then as it does about the people who live now,” he says. “When you begin to peel back the layers of history, you realize that it just wasn’t one or two bad actors, it was a society that condoned and promoted this type of behavior.”