By John N. Mitchell
PHILADELPHIA — For the better part of 2½ hours, Delbert Africa wore the kind of smile one might expect of someone just released from prison after serving more than four decades behind bars.
However, that smile briefly disappeared when Africa, the most recent member of the MOVE 9 to be released from prison, was asked if the American “system” was any better today than it was when he began his sentence.
“To me, it’s worse,” said Africa, now 73. “You still have strong, dedicated and committed people pushing against the system but today it’s worse. There are more prisons now. There are parts of Pennsylvania that didn’t have drug problems when I went to jail that now are overrun [with drugs].
“Now you’re sharing a cell, the jail is packed, and they’ve built a lot more jails to put people and to profit off of it. It’s a lot worse today.”
Africa made this statement on Tuesday at a press conference at the Kingsessing Library marking his release from prison after 42 years.
With Delbert Africa’s release from jail, just one member of the MOVE 9, Chuck Africa, remains in prison in connection with the Aug. 8, 1978 shooing death of Philadelphia police officer James Ramp during a shootout between MOVE and Philadelphia police outside the group’s house in the Powelton Village section of the city.
Each of the nine members of the Black liberation organization were sentenced to jail on third-degree murder charges, despite the fact that Ramp was killed by a single bullet, and each was sentenced to 30 or more years in prison. All have been eligible for parole since 2008.
Two died in prison. Merle Africa died in 1998. And Phil Africa died in 2015.
“We are going to continue to fight to have Chuck set free,” said Delbert Africa. “He is the last one to come home. He’s is going to be free and we are going to have our family on the other side.”
Perhaps more than anyone, Delbert Africa has come to symbolize that standoff. After Ramp had been shot, and his fellow officers flooded the basement of the MOVE house with water cannons and deployed tear gas, Delbert Africa emerged from the house with his hands raised parallel to the ground.
His surrender did not prevent about a half dozen police officers from savagely beating him.
Lean and athletic then, Africa is still trim. He wears his hair in locs today, as he did when he was younger, except now it is not black but a mix of brown and grey.
Last year, when he was in SCI-Dallas and unable to communicate with family members, it was reported that he was suffering from a kidney condition. However, Tuesday he said he’s “fine and I’m doing better every day that I’m on the outside.”
On Tuesday, he appeared at a table with other MOVE members and for the most part recounted the standoff that sent him to prison and made observations about the time he served in jail.
About 30 people gathered to hear him speak, and some in the group had served time in jail with Delbert Africa.
One woman said she lived in the neighborhood where the standoff took place and Africa’s actions had “inspired me and my friends to stand up against injustice.”
Fred Hampton Jr., the son of Chicago-based Black Panther leader Fred Hampton who was killed in a standoff with that city’s police in 1969, was also in attendance. Hampton befriended Delbert Africa and frequently visited him in prison.
“I’m humbled to be here for this moment to see him living free,” Hampton said. “The MOVE members served all this time for a killing that no one believes they committed. I came from Chicago because brother Delbert is a hero.”
Delbert Africa’s daughter, Yvonne Orr-El, was 10 years old when her father was sent to jail. She was raised in Chicago by her mother, who was a member of the Chicago Black Panthers. She didn’t see her father much when she was growing up.
She met him on Saturday when he was released from the Luzerne County jail. During Tuesday’s press conference, she regularly whispered in his ear, which brought a smile to his face.
“This is like the Fountain of Youth for me. I feel like a 13-year-old graduating from eighth grade all over again,” Orr-El said. “It’s exciting. It’s a rush of emotions mixed with anger because I feel like it’s been too long. Those are 42 years that you know you are not going to get back.”
John N. Mitchell is a reporter and columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.