'40 Years a Prisoner': Who was John Africa? All about the MOVE founder and the confrontations he was part of

In 1973, MOVE formed around Africa's principles, which called for a vigorous rejection of the norms and conventions of modern technological society


                            '40 Years a Prisoner': Who was John Africa? All about the MOVE founder and the confrontations he was part of
MOVE members (Getty Images)

HBO's latest documentary, '40 Years a Prisoner' chronicles the controversial 1978 Philadelphia police raid on the radical back-to-nature group MOVE and the aftermath that led to a son’s decades-long fight to free his parents. Through eyewitness accounts and archival footage of the escalating tension that resulted in the controversial confrontation between police and MOVE members, the film illuminates the story of a city grappling with racial tension and police brutality with alarming topicality and modern-day relevance.

Nine members of MOVE were arrested after a shootout broke out between the police and MOVE in 1978 and led to the death of a police officer. Each was sentenced to a maximum of 100 years in prison. They were Chuck, Delbert, Eddie, Janet, Janine, Merle, Michael, Phil, and Debbie Africa. However, eyewitness accounts stated that the officer may have been accidentally shot by another police officer.

Those watching the documentary might hear the members mention one name as they talk about following his principles. The militant anarcho-primitivist group was founded by John Africa (who was born Vincent Leaphart). The group was inspired by the Black Panthers and lived in a communal setting in West Philadelphia, where they combined their revolutionary ideology with animal rights activism. In their compound, MOVE members lived together and brought in the animals they rescued off the streets. On MOVE's official website, the organization states that Africa had "taken the mess this system made of us while we were under the influence of the system and cleaned us up, took us away from drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, crime, disease, perversion, suicidal tendencies, manic depression and made us healthy, strong, balanced people."

John Africa -- born Vincent Leaphart -- founded MOVE on a specific set of principles, but as viewers watch the documentary, they might wonder whether he was part of the protests and shootout. Africa was born to Frederick Leaphart, a handyman, and Lennie Mae, a homemaker. As a child, he was underweight. At age 9 he was transferred to a school for slow learners to learn simple trades. He would continue to struggle in school and drop out at age 16. Africa went on to serve in the US Army during the Korean War, and on his return to the United States, he married Dorothy Clark. 

In 1973, MOVE formed around Africa's principles, which called for a vigorous rejection of the norms and conventions of modern technological society. The disruptive lifestyle of MOVE members led to conflict with neighbors and the police. The 1978 standoff between the police and MOVE did not involve John Africa, however, in 1985, in a bigger confrontation between the two groups, the Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on the MOVE compound without warning and the fire department let the fire burn in spite of the mayor asking for the fire to be put out. John Africa was killed in the encounter along with five children and five adults, who were all members of MOVE.

'40 Years a Prisoner' premieres on HBO on Tuesday, December 8, at 9/8c.

If you have an entertainment scoop or a story for us, please reach out to us on (323) 421-7515