City Council members should rename it “5 Dead Children” Street. Or they should rename it “11 Incinerated Humans” Street or even “61 Firebombed Homes” Street. But instead, in Resolution Number 180663-A three months ago, they began the process of renaming the 2400 block of North 59th Street “W. Wilson Goode Sr. Way,” effective Sept. 21 at a public ceremony.
At the outset, I must state first that I consider Goode a personal friend and second that he, as an admirable minister in 2018, is clearly not the same callously indifferent, race-betraying, white supremacist co-signing bureaucratic tool he was on May 13, 1985.
On that fateful day — and on his watch as the city’s first Black mayor- he approved or allowed hell on Earth to reign in a West Philadelphia neighborhood leading to the incinerating deaths of eleven Black folks, including five children, and to the infernal obliteration of 61 Black homes.
At 5:20 p.m. 33 years ago on May 13, a state police helicopter took off from the command post’s flight pad at 63rd and Walnut, flew a few times over 6221 Osage, and then hovered 60 feet above that two-story house. Lt. Frank Powell, chief of the city’s Bomb Disposal Unit, was holding a bag containing a bomb consisting of two sticks of Tovex TR2 with C-4 added, which was concocted by fellow unit member Police Officer William Klein. After radioing firefighters on the ground and lighting the bomb’s 45-second fuse — and with the official and ruthlessly inconsiderate approval or mercilessly brutal indifference of Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. and at the insistence of Police Commissioner Gregore Sambor — Powell, at precisely 5:28 p.m. tossed the bag onto a bunker on the roof.
This was followed shortly thereafter by a loud explosion and then a large bright orange ball of fire that reached 7,200 degrees. As a result, Officer Powell, Fire Commissioner William Richmond, City Managing Director Leo Brooks, Police Commissioner Sambor, many police officers, and especially Mayor Goode committed, in the words of Philadelphia Special Investigation Commission (better known as the MOVE Commission) member Charles Bowser, a “criminally evil” act.
As told to me 15 years ago by Mr. Bowser, my mentor who brought me into his prestigious law firm three years earlier and the author of a tell-all book entitled Let The Bunker Burn, five of the city’s most influential Black political leaders met at Goode’s home before dawn that day in response to his invitation and warning that “I’m going to make a move on the MOVE house… (this) morning.” This was in connection with what he said were complaints from Osage Avenue neighbors along with purported outstanding minor arrest warrants for some MOVE members. But it should be noted that those neighbors had attempted to stop the police siege of their community as soon as they realized what was developing.
In fact, as the five influential Black leaders watched the TV broadcast of the military-like assault unfolding with preliminary shots and tear gas fired, two of them repeatedly urged Goode to call it off. In particular, City Council President Joseph Coleman, sitting at Goode’s kitchen table, told him the 500-strong police action was “excessive” and State Senator Hardy Williams, standing near the kitchen entrance, said “Why don’t they just back up and relax? Nobody’s going anywhere.”
More than 500 cops fired over 10,000 rounds of ammunition in less than 90 minutes in this impressively tidy Black neighborhood.
In his book, Bowser used the term “military explosive.” What he was referring to was Tovex TR2, a commercial bomb substance invented in the 1960s as an option to dynamite. It was invented to dig trenches through rock in order to lay pipes. The “TR” is the abbreviation for trench and the “2” refers to the second DuPont Company item in its trenching product line. The company’s Explosive Products Division was located only about a half hour from Philly in Delaware. But Goode didn’t care enough or know enough to assign someone to contact DuPont and ask what could happen if TR2 is used in a residential neighborhood. If he had, DuPont would have told him it was designed and used for underground non-residential purposes only.
It gets worse. As powerfully incendiary as TR2 is, it became even more catastrophic when the bomb-dropping city cop added a 1¼ pound block of C-4 on top of the two sticks of Tovex- despite the fact that the U.S. Army in 1979 had ended distribution of C-4 to all police departments throughout the country. But, as documented in an Oct. 22, 1985 letter from a special agent who headed the FBI’s Philadelphia Office, approximately 30 blocks of C-4 had been delivered to the city by an FBI agent as a proposed solution during discussions about an anticipated confrontation with MOVE.
When questioned by reporters afterward, Goode shockingly said, “We had a well-thought-out plan. That plan was to avoid loss of life. The one thing we didn’t anticipate was when the percussion grenade went off it would cause a fire. That was an accident. I am saddened by what happened as much as anyone.” And he later added, “If I had to make the same decision, I would ‘do it again.’” What? “Do it again?” Are you kiddin’ me?
The overkill police presence, the military-style siege, the evil bombing, and the wicked burning- at worst with Goode’s approval and at best without his opposition- were not just “grossly negligent” and “unconscionable” as the MOVE Commission officially noted in Findings Number 15 and 18. They also were murderous because first degree murder in Pennsylvania is defined in Pa.C.S. 2502(a) and (d) as the “willful, deliberate, and premeditated” killing of a human being. Intentionally dropping a firebomb on adults and children along with intentionally allowing a blazing fire to spread unchecked meets that legal definition. And, in this case, it really was “Black on Black crime.”
Despite his involvement in and ultimate responsibility for such inhuman carnage, Goode is not all bad. In fact, apart from that tragically unforgettable May 13, 1985 date, he has worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of Black people throughout Philadelphia. For example, as Mayor, he created and implemented progressive policies that increased the number of Blacks in top-level city government positions, that boosted the amount of city contracts to Black businesses, and that expanded development in North Philly. Afterward, as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education, he focused on improving access to quality resources in the nation’s inner city schools. And he continues to serve as President and CEO of Amachi, Incorporated, a nationally renowned Christian mentoring program for 300,000 children of incarcerated parents and as Chairman and CEO of Self, Incorporated, a non-profit organization that assists and empowers over 600 homeless men and women.
As a result, because of Rev. Goode’s tireless community service and selfless religious work apart from his indefensibly heartless conduct and inexcusably heartless statements in connection with May 13, I’m not necessarily saying there should be no City Council street renaming ceremony in his honor in the 2400 block of North 59th Street on Sept. 21 at 10:00 am. I’m simply saying there should be none if he does not first issue a personal and public humble, heartfelt, and unconditional apology to the still-grieving families of the dead and to the still-traumatized homeowners and residents as well as a public apology to all other city residents from then and now. If, and only if, he does that, many Philadelphians, including me, might reconsider our current renaming opposition.
I truly believe my friend Rev. Dr. Goode just might issue such an apology because he is a genuine Christian. And before acting or speaking, genuine Christians always ask themselves, “What would Jesus do?” and then act and speak accordingly.