40 Years A Prisoner Tells The True Story Of Mike Africa Jr.’s Plight To Free His Activist Parents

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Mike Africa Jr. is no stranger to the U.S. prison system. In 1978, 22-year-old Debbie Sims Africa, who was merely weeks into her sentence, gave birth in prison. She hid her son under her sheets for three days while other women inmates stood guard outside her cell, the Guardian reports, so she could spend some private time with her baby before they were separated. Once Africa Jr. was 13 and understood that both his parents were in prison, he started looking for ways to prove their innocence — a decades-long crusade for justice. 
Africa Jr.’s fight to free his parents — and the Philadelphia police’s 1978 raid on the “radical back-to-nature group” MOVE — is chronicled in 40 Years A Prisoner, a new HBO documentary directed by Tommy Oliver. “I spent three years of my life making a film about the indomitable will of a son to free his parents who were fighting against police brutality, systemic racism, and wrongful incarceration in the 1970s,” Oliver said about the documentary, per the Hollywood Reporter
But who are Mike Africa Jr.’s parents — and where are they now?
Debbie Sims Africa and Michael Africa Sr., Africa Jr.’s parents, are members of the Black organization MOVE, which was founded by John Africa. Members, who take the surname Africa to signal they are a family, lived in Philadelphia in a compound with rescue cats and dogs that took up two houses on a residential block. In the 1970s, Philly’s then-mayor, Frank Rizzo, targeted the group in an attempt to evict them. On August 8, 1978, hundreds of officers stormed the building using gunfire, tear gas, and water cannons, leading to the death of one police officer, James Ramp.
Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Nine members of MOVE, five men and four women (including Africa Jr.’s parents) were charged collectively for Ramp’s death. Prosecutors alleged members of MOVE fired the single shot that killed Ramp, but eyewitnesses said the bullet came from the opposite direction. This backed up MOVE’s attorney, who said the officer was killed by accidental “friendly fire.” MOVE members also said they had no working guns in the home, the Guardian reports. The nine, however, were sentenced to 30 years to life. Two have died in prison while only one member — Chuck Africa — still remains behind bars, the Guardian reports. 
Sims Africa was eight months pregnant and holding her two-year-old daughter when the siege occurred. “I had to feel my way up the stairs to get out of the basement with my baby in my arms,” she told the Guardian. At her trial, there was no evidence showing Sims Africa or the women charged alongside her used firearms during the incident. 
For 40 long years after the siege, Sims Africa and Africa Sr. were separated and held in two different Pennsylvania prisons, essentially making Africa Jr. an orphan of the U.S. prison system and fight for Black liberation. Africa Jr. was raised by relative and other members of MOVE while visiting his parents in their respective prisons. “I was a community kid, I had many mothers,” he told the Guardian
In June 2018, Sims Africa, then 61, was finally granted parole and released from Cambridge Springs Prison. Her attorneys showed that while behind bars, Sims Africa mentored other prisoners and even worked as a dog handler, training puppies to assist people with disabilities, the Guardian reports. Her release also allowed Sims Africa and Africa Jr. to do the simple things they were robbed of his entire life, like have breakfast together. 

Several months later, in October 2018, Mike Africa Sr. became the second MOVE member to be released from prison — and was finally reunited with his family. Upon his father’s release from SCI Phoenix Prison on parole, Africa Jr. was finally able to be in the same room as both his parents, no longer an orphan in any sense of the word.

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