And later, when he stood trial on weapons and conspiracy charges - his only court appearance as the leader of MOVE - he won over a federal jury and outwitted a Harvard-trained prosecutor who thought he had an unbeatable case.
He had an IQ of 79 and could barely read and write, yet he spun a web of philosophy that filled hundreds of pages.
Somehow, it seemed appropriate that this visionary leader of MOVE, this phantom-like fugitive, should be as much a mystery in death as he was in life.
His corpse both baffled forensic science and carried on the John Africa mystique.
In the end, after the Police Department's disastrous assault on MOVE's Osage Avenue compound, at least 11 lives would be lost, a close-knit West Philadelphia neighborhood would be leveled, the once- sparkling reputation of the city's first black mayor would be sullied, and nothing would remain of John Africa but a charred torso on a metal gurney in a brightly lighted morgue loaded with just the sort of technology John Africa abhorred. Always before, when the growing tension between MOVE and law-enforcement authorities erupted into confrontation, John Africa wasn't there.
For four years, he had eluded the prosecutors who were tracking him, and when they finally caught him and tried him, he was acquitted.