Three top figures say the organisation became a cult and allege girls were pressured into child marriage
Last modified on Sat 25 Sep 2021 07.02 BST
Three of the most prominent members of Move, one of the oldest Black liberation groups in the US, have grown so disenchanted with the alleged abuses and cult-like behavior of the leadership that they have broken ties with the organization.
In a three-hour interview with the Guardian, Mike and Debbie Davis and their son Mike Africa Jr spoke publicly for the first time about their long-held concerns about the group’s direction. They said they had grown increasingly disturbed by the way children had been treated within Move in the 1980s and 90s, with some kids kept out of school and girls as young as 12 allegedly cajoled into child marriages.
They also objected to the way that Move members who fell sick with cancer were instructed to forgo medication on grounds that their illness was “all in the mind”.
Mike Davis, 65, issued a statement to the Guardian in which he said he had “completely disassociated from the Move organization”. He added that the decision was one that had been “decades in the making”.
Asked by the Guardian whether she had decided to leave the Move organization, Debbie Davis, 64, replied: “Yes, it’s been coming a long time.”
Mike and Debbie Davis were part of the Move 9, the members who were imprisoned for decades and became the public face of the organization. They served 40 years for the shooting death of a police officer during the 1978 siege of Move’s Philadelphia headquarters before they were paroled in 2018.
Their son, Mike Africa Jr, 43, has also been a leading public figure in Move. He was born in a cell days after his mother’s arrest, and it was not until he was 40 years old that he was reunited with his parents out of prison.
Mike Africa Jr told the Guardian that he too had broken ties with the leadership of Move, though he stressed that he still adhered to core values such as the fight against racial discrimination and combatting environmental degradation. “Most people in Move are good people, but they were led into other things by bad people,” he said.
The malaise of the group should be seen as a cautionary tale, Mike Africa Jr added. “You can be an activist, but it’s important to be consistent in your values – you can’t fight for what’s right externally while doing the opposite internally.”
The departure of three top Move members poses the most serious threat yet to the organization, which was founded in 1972 in Philadelphia. Its founder, Vincent Leaphart, changed his name to John Africa and encouraged all Move members to take the last name Africa in homage to their African roots.
In its almost 50 years of existence Move has regularly generated national headlines. The 1978 siege was one of the most dramatic events of the 1970s Black liberation struggle.
In 1985, the Philadelphia police force shocked the country when it dropped a bomb on to the roof of the Move headquarters, igniting a fire that killed 11 people, including five children. Earlier this year further shock waves erupted when it was disclosed that the bones of some of the children who died in the inferno had been kept without permission by Pennsylvania and Princeton Universities and used as “case studies” in anthropology classes.
John Africa was among the victims of the 1985 bombing. About three years after his death, control of the group passed to John Africa’s wife, Alberta Africa, and her deputy Sue Africa, and the pair have been in charge ever since.
The first defections from Move began earlier this summer when 13 former members and supporters, including Mike and Debbie Davis’s daughter Whit Sims, declared they had quit.
The 13 have set up a website, Leaving Move, in which they allege that there has been a pattern of children as young as 12 being pressured into sexual relations going back decades. They also allege that they and others in the movement were subjected to intimidation and manipulation.
The website, first reported by Billy Penn and the Philadelphia Inquirer, alleges that several teenage girls were pushed into marriage and pregnancy by Move leaders. Some were as young as 14, and one was 12 when she became pregnant.
Some of the former members have also spoken to a podcast, Murder at Ryan’s Run, which explored the 2002 death of Alberta Africa’s former husband, John Gilbride. His homicide remains unsolved.
Whit Sims married when she was 16 and had a child the following year. Debbie Davis told the Guardian that she herself had been party to the pressure that had been placed on her daughter.
She said that Alberta Africa, Move’s leader, had wanted Whit married and encouraged Debbie to talk to her daughter. “Alberta said to me that Whit is getting older, she’s built, she’s really pretty, I don’t want the responsibility to be on us if anything happened.”
Debbie said she went on to have that talk with Whit. “I got scared for my daughter. I felt very uncomfortable with the conversation, but I did carry it out,” she said.
She added that she now feels deep regret and shame. “I should have fought more, told Whit that if you don’t want to do this, don’t do it.”
Debbie Davis said that the main reason she was speaking out now and announcing her separation from Move was to support her daughter. “I wouldn’t be doing this were it not for my daughter. I am speaking out now to support her and her healing.”
In his statement, Mike Davis said he supported his daughter’s “right to heal, to choose her own path, as I do for anyone, especially those who are being oppressed and subjugated as they were in Move”.
Of all the three Davis family members, Mike Sr has harbored doubts about Move the longest. He said he was contemplating getting out of the organization even before the 1978 siege which sent him to prison for the next 40 years.
“I was worried about how things would turn out, but I chose to stay in because my family was there and I didn’t think I could leave and take them with me,” he said. Whit was two years old at the time of the siege.
Mike Sr said that he has been racked with regret that he didn’t quit before it was too late. “I regret I didn’t push harder. I was weak. I put most responsibility upon myself for not leaving when I should have.”
The Guardian reached out to Alberta Africa and Sue Africa, and asked them about the allegations that girls were pressed into marriage as young as 12, along with all the other allegations of abuse and misconduct raised by the Davis family. They did not immediately respond.
Over his many years in prison, Mike Sr said he had regular disagreements with the leadership of Move. He objected to the efforts to keep children out of school, which left several Move kids unable to read and write.
“I said it’s ridiculous to have kids out there who would not be able to get home if they were separated from the adults because they couldn’t read road signs. How could they take care of themselves?”
Mike Sr insisted that his own son went to school. He also educated himself while in prison, completing three degrees.
When members did protest against the leadership’s policies, they often faced retribution, the Davis family said. A third member of the Move 9, Debbie’s brother Chuck Sims, was expelled from the group by Alberta Africa in 2011 while he was still imprisoned.
The expulsion, which has never before been reported, was meted out as punishment after Sims questioned the leaders’ judgment. Sims, who was the last of the Move 9 to be released last year after almost 42 years behind bars, had been a member of the group since the age of 12.
Several of the Move 9 were diagnosed with cancer. Phil Africa and Merle Africa both died in prison from the disease, and Delbert Africa died months after he was let out on parole.
In each case, the Davis family alleged, the Move leadership told the members to reject medical treatment, saying that they could heal themselves through right thinking.
Mike Africa Jr said that he personally witnessed the leadership discouraging Move members from seeking medical treatment: “They said: ‘This is just mental, nothing’s wrong with them. As long as they think right they’ll be fine.’”
Debbie Davis recalled how she advised Merle Africa to get checked out in the prison hospital. “She said, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to be disloyal.’ I said, ‘Merle, you’re not being disloyal.’”
The Davises said they were also dismayed by the behavior of the leadership towards the campaign to free the Move 9, which attracted nationwide and international attention. The leaders consistently refused to help the prisoners by providing them with legal counsel.
Mike Africa Jr, who spearheaded the campaign to free his parents and the other Move 9 members, said he battled for years against the leaders’ intransigence. “I could never get any support from the leadership to get the Move 9 out. Every time we raised the need for legal counsel it was, ‘No, we don’t believe in that, that’s not Move belief.’”
In the end, Mike Africa Jr said, he concluded that the leaders “didn’t actually want the Move 9 to come home”.
The Davises all said they had come to the conclusion that Move under John Africa and then Alberta and Sue Africa was imbued with qualities of a cult. Debbie and Mike Sr said that “there were elements that fit the definition of a cult”.
Mike Africa Jr went further, saying that all the classic elements of a cult were present in Move, including the way John Africa was revered. “He was put on a pedestal in an unhealthy way. I think it was very unhealthy to praise someone so much they lose sight of themselves.”
Mike Africa Jr, who has laid out his reflections in a podcast called My Life in Move: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, added that he still believed that much of what John Africa taught about racial discrimination, the environment and healthy eating was true. “But absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The challenge now, he said, was to face up to the mistakes of the past in order to move on. “We have experienced a lot of harm and devastating trauma and it is far past time to move on to the healing process.”
Debbie and Mike Sr in particular said they carry bitter regrets over what happened to them and to their children. Mike Sr said he was 18 when he joined the organization “and by 22 we were doing 100 years in jail. We listened to all this bullshit. That’s my biggest regret. We didn’t have a chance to develop and before we knew it, we were stuck.”
Debbie Davis said that for years she had been committed wholeheartedly to Move beliefs. “In turn, I’ve hurt myself and hurt a lot of people, including those I love. In the name of loyalty I pushed aside even my own instincts. I’m ashamed of it, I’m embarrassed by it, and I’m going to try and heal it.”