The first session of Niagara University’s 2019-20 Social Justice Speaker and Discussion Series kicked off on Tuesday, Sept. 10, with a stirring presentation by activist Mike Africa Jr., who detailed his harrowing life story as a member of the Philadelphia-based black liberation activist group, MOVE.
Founded in 1972, MOVE concerned itself with a range of social issues, from racial equality and police violence, to environmental concerns and animal rights.
In the years that followed, tensions escalated between the organization and city officials. In 1978, Africa’s mother, Debbie Sims Africa, and father, Michael Africa Sr., were arrested along with seven other MOVE members after a violent standoff with the Philadelphia Police Department, which left one officer dead. Although questions would later surround the incident for decades, all nine MOVE members (dubbed “the MOVE Nine”) were sentenced to 100 years in prison.
Five weeks into his mother’s sentence, she gave birth to Mike Jr. in her cell. For three days, she kept him hidden from the guards in order to spend what little time she could with her son.
It wasn’t until he reached adolescence that he began to learn about the events surrounding the arrest of his parents, and the 1985 siege that he witnessed when he was seven years old, during which police dropped explosives onto a MOVE residence, killing 11 people, including five children.
“I have battle scars from things like that. But I continue to go on because life is powerful and important,” he said.
Over the course of the next few decades, Africa worked tirelessly as an active MOVE member to get the MOVE Nine released from prison. In June of 2018, after years of work, Debbie Sims Africa was released on parole. Four months later, Mike Africa Sr. was granted parole, as well. Soon after their release, the couple, having spent 40 years apart, renewed their vows at a nearby church, with their son by their side.
Africa called it the proudest moment of his life.
“That's the story of resistance, resilience, and perseverance,” he said.
In his closing remarks, Africa shared a quote from MOVE founder, John Africa, on the power of perseverance.
“No matter how hopeless life’s work may yet seem, the power that’s needed will never betray MOVE. Remember how water seems pent in and trapped, until the dam brakes and crumbles and dies like its maker,” he said.
During the Q&A, the activist was asked how he reconciles MOVE’s aspirations against the toll it took on him and his family. After contemplating for a moment, he replied “Life is suffering everywhere. Innocent babies are being killed. Seals are being beaten in the head with clubs so some rich person can wear their skin … it is so very important to understand the need to fight for lives, especially [those] that cannot fight to protect themselves,” he said.
To date, while six of the MOVE Nine have been released, two members, Chuck Sims Africa and Delbert Orr Africa, still remain in prison. (One member, Merle Africa, died in prison in 1998.)
The Social Justice Speaker & Discussion Series is presented by the political science department. According to Dr. David Reilly, director of international studies and chair of the political science department, the series aims to spotlight a wide range of civil rights defenders, environmental activists, political prisoners, and other individuals who fight for liberation “across a spectrum of struggles."
“The purpose of our series is to engage the campus community in these struggles by introducing the ideas of individuals who have been active participants, and who have led these struggles. We hope to create dialogue and to motivate our students, and our campus, to work for social justice,” Reilly said.