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Killing the Messenger
A Story of Radical Faith, Racism’s Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist
By Thomas Peele
(Crown; 441 pages; $26)
When journalist Chauncey Bailey was shot to death on a downtown Oakland street corner in broad daylight on Aug. 2, 2007, he became the first American journalist in a generation who was murdered stateside for doing his job.
But as Thomas Peele argues in his urgent new book “Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism’s Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist,” Bailey’s death isn’t primarily a story about journalism. Instead, his murder was the inevitable end to a three-decade reign of terror perpetrated on the people of Oakland by the Nation of Islam offshoot cult that ran the health food store called Your Black Muslim Bakery.
To understand how Your Black Muslim Bakery came to be, Peele takes readers back to the post-World War I migration of Southern blacks to Chicago and Detroit, where they hoped to find work (many in Henry Ford’s factories), and a life away from the constant terror wrought by white Southerners.
But racism was alive and well north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and Peele writes that angry, traumatized blacks were perfect pickings for W.D. Fard, a mysterious little man probably born in Afghanistan who, after a stint in San Quentin, made his way, around 1930, to Detroit, where “the misery surrounding him was nothing but wide-open opportunity.”
Fard espoused a bizarre but carefully crafted theology consisting of what Peele describes as just enough orthodox Islam to seem legitimate. He cast himself as divine and preached that whites were devils created by a mad scientist. Fard welcomed former criminals into the fold and instructed followers to eschew pork and dress in suits (which he sold them), and gave them the courage to stand up to authorities eager to trample on their rights.
After World War II, the Nation of Islam’s message spread to California. And in 1964, after seeing Fard’s protege Elijah Muhammad speak, a Santa Barbara hairdresser named Joseph Stephens joined the movement. Stephens, who changed his name to Yusuf Bey and eventually relocated to Oakland, was a criminal at heart. He claimed to have opened the bakery to provide jobs for young black men, but Peele writes that Your Black Muslim Bakery was really a front for Bey’s basest instincts. He had multiple “wives,” as many as 42 children, and was arrested on charges of child rape in 2002.
And people who crossed him had a bad habit of dying.
But dangerous as Bey was, it was his son Yusuf Bey IV (known as Fourth) who took the cult his father built and turned it into a wild urban army. Like those before him, Fourth recruited ex-cons: “As long as California did so little for offenders,” writes Peele, “jails were a pipeline for the Beys, an employment service.”
One of those former offenders was Devaughndre Broussard. Broussard grew up in various foster homes around the Bay Area and fell in with the Beys after serving time for assault. When Fourth learned that Chauncey Bailey was writing a story about the bakery, he ordered the 19-year-old Broussard to kill him.
While it was Bailey’s reporting that was the direct reason for his murder, according to Peele there were other factors at work. Peele savages Oakland authorities, writing that the police employed a “don’t search, don’t find” policy toward the bakery for years and that city leaders kowtowed to the Beys, willfully ignoring their growing menace.
The author’s relationship with Bailey is more complicated. Peele, himself an award-winning investigative journalist, describes Bailey on the first page of the prologue as being “by no means an overly talented writer or reporter.” Later, he writes that he had a reputation for “hasty reporting, poor writing and questionable ethics.” Peele also points out that the article that got Bailey killed – an article that never ran because the publisher of the Oakland Post was apparently afraid to print it – was the product of a single, anonymous source inside the bakery. Bailey, writes Peele, couldn’t be bothered to seek out available documents or records that would back up his story.
Despite his disdain for the way Bailey practiced his profession, Peele felt moved enough by his murder to join with a group of journalists who banded together soon after Bailey’s death to do what Chauncey Bailey himself did not: dig for data and eventually report the ugly truth about Fourth, the bakery and the half-cocked law enforcement effort to bring them to justice. They called themselves the Chauncey Bailey Project.
“Killing the Messenger” will be a revelation to many readers, detailing 100 years of American history that simply isn’t part of the mainstream lexicon. Peele masterfully draws a line from the “radical faith” that the scars of slavery and Jim Crow helped popularize to the bullets that turned Chauncey Bailey into “a First Amendment martyr.”
Julia Dahl is a contributing editor to the Crime Report. firstname.lastname@example.org