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Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism's Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist

Killing the Messenger: A Story of Radical Faith, Racism's Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist

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by Thomas Peele

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When a nineteen-year-old member of a Black Muslim cult assassinated Oakland newspaper editor Chauncey Bailey in 2007—the most shocking killing of a journalist in the United States in thirty years—the question was, Why? “I just wanted to be a good soldier, a strong soldier,” the killer told police.   A strong soldier for


When a nineteen-year-old member of a Black Muslim cult assassinated Oakland newspaper editor Chauncey Bailey in 2007—the most shocking killing of a journalist in the United States in thirty years—the question was, Why? “I just wanted to be a good soldier, a strong soldier,” the killer told police.   A strong soldier for whom?

Killing the Messenger is a searing work of narrative nonfiction that explores one of the most blatant attacks on the First Amendment and free speech in American history and the small Black Muslim cult that carried it out. Award-winning investigative reporter Thomas Peele examines the Black Muslim movement from its founding in the early twentieth century by a con man who claimed to be God, to the height of power of the movement’s leading figure, Elijah Muhammad, to how the great-grandson of Texas slaves reinvented himself as a Muslim leader in Oakland and built the violent cult that the young gunman eventually joined. Peele delves into how charlatans exploited poor African Americans with tales from a religion they falsely claimed was Islam and the years of bloodshed that followed, from a human sacrifice in Detroit to police shootings of unarmed Muslims to the horrible backlash of racism known as the “zebra murders,” and finally to the brazen killing of Chauncey Bailey to stop him from publishing a newspaper story. 
Peele establishes direct lines between the violent Black Muslim organization run by Yusuf Bey in Oakland and the evangelicalism of the early prophets and messengers of the Nation of Islam.  Exposing the roots of the faith, Peele examines its forerunner, the Moorish Science Temple of America, which in the 1920s and ’30s preached to migrants from the South living in Chicago and Detroit ghettos that blacks were the world’s master race, tricked into slavery by white devils. In spite of the fantastical claims and hatred at its core, the Nation of Islam was able to build a following by appealing to the lack of identity common in slave descendants. 

In Oakland, Yusuf Bey built a cult through a business called Your Black Muslim Bakery, beating and raping dozens of women he claimed were his wives and fathering more than forty children.  Yet, Bey remained a prominent fixture in the community, and police looked the other way as his violent soldiers ruled the streets.
An enthralling narrative that combines a rich historical account with gritty urban reporting, Killing the Messenger is a mesmerizing story of how swindlers and con men abused the tragedy of racism and created a radical religion of bloodshed and fear that culminated in a journalist’s murder.

THOMAS PEELE is a digital investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group and the Chauncey Bailey Project. He is also a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism.  His many honors include the Investigative Reporters and Editors Tom Renner Award for his reporting on organized crime, and the McGill Medal for Journalistic Courage. He lives in Northern California.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In a 1959 television interview, the Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad looked to the future and declared, “There will be plenty of bloodshed—plenty of it.” In the context of journalist Peele’s eye-opening narrative about radical religion and its consequences, these words turn out to be a gross understatement. Peele spent more than four years investigating the 2007 assassination of Oakland Post reporter Chauncey Bailey at the hands of a cult family called the Beys. He explores the murder as well as the Black Muslim faith, a fundamentalist offshoot of the Nation of Islam. Starting in the late 19th century, Peele traces the origins of the “Black Muslim movement” and provides portraits of leaders including con man W.D. Fard; his emissary Elijah Poole; and Yusuf Ali Bey, the patriarch of the Oakland sect. Peele follows with a multigenerational account of the Beys’s heinous crimes, money-making schemes, and oppressive rule, and their eventual intersection with Bailey. The chain of violence that accompanies the movement’s century-long evolution is staggering, and justice, when it comes, is overdue. Peele renders characters and scenes with rich detail and his chronicle of events surrounding Bailey’s death unfolds with the seamlessness of a fictional thriller, would that were the case. Agent: Elizabeth Evans, Kimberley Cameron. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
“Gripping and insightful…A page-turner, in the tradition of great true-crime novels such as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.” — San Francisco Bay Guardian

“A story told with the authority and nuance that comes with exhaustive research…Without a doubt Killing the Messenger will stand as the definitive work on Bailey's murder and Oakland's Your Black Muslim Bakery.” – The Associated Press

“[A] chilling narrative…Peele’s undying integrity not only uncovers enough hard-hitting facts to thoroughly close both the investigation and the murder, but also restores our trust that justice can be served.”  — Uptown Magazine

“A very well written and thoroughly researched book…Peele bring vital historical context to the contemporary aspects of his tale…Killing the Messenger may well be the best, most thoroughly researched, and – with exceptions noted – most objective book thus far written on the subject, and is no doubt destined to become required reading in many colleges and universities.  Hopefully it will also be read in prisons, to educate young black men that Tricknology comes in all colors.  If the devil is indeed in the details, Peele has given us many demons to exorcise.” – Columbia Journalism Review

“An astonishing account…Reading it, I kept flashing back to "The Wire," David Simon's devastating HBO series on the disintegration of the American city. There are details in this book that even Simon couldn't have dreamed up…Peele's writing is straightforward and free of sensationalism…More than a gripping true-crime story, Killing the Messenger is an indictment of a corrupt and cowardly civic culture that isn't unique to Oakland.” – Cleveland Plain Dealer

"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."” – San Francisco Chronicle

“[Thomas Peele] is the kind of writer who can convert the passion of newswriting into an art form, even if it's a subject — the assassination of a journalist, and the events that led up to it — that's never pretty nor polished.  Indeed, he managed to take a complex subject — the rise of a family in Oakland, Calif. that worshiped the Nation of Islam, and then conspired to assassinate a journalist to protect themselves — and make it simple, dramatic and unique.” – Tom Davis, The Huffington Post

“The murder of Oakland journalist Chauncey Bailey and a family's violent rise to prominence is given gripping life…Compelling reading…And it is a chilling reminder of the murder and acts of intimidation that confront journalists around the world regularly. Seeking to bring light to the truth can be a dangerous pursuit, even here in the land of the free.” – LA Times

With a sense of immediacy and purpose, Peele reconstructs the story in gripping fashion. He is especially adept at describing personalities…Killing the Messenger leaves no stone unturned in its historical account. The author illuminates each new character — even if it means going back a generation or two — and then puts him into the context of the story. In doing so, he shows how racism and oppression spawned a radical faith rooted in revenge.” – Youngstown Vindicator

“A complex, carefully constructed story of the development of the Black Muslim Movement and one of its most notorious leaders.” – Kirkus

"[An] eye-opening narrative about radical religion and its consequences...Peele renders characters and scenes with rich detail and his chronicle of events surrounding Bailey’s death unfolds with the seamlessness of a fictional thriller, would that were the case.” – Publisher’s Weekly

“[A] riveting account.” - Booklist

“A riveting account of the events that led up to Bailey's murder…It is an exhaustively researched narrative that details the rise and fall of Your Black Muslim Bakery…[with] Sometimes stomach-churning detail.”  - Oakland Tribune

“This is totally chilling, incredibly strange material, and the book is sweeping, site-specific, and compulsively readable.” – The Observer’s Very Short List

Killing the Messenger is a crackling work of nonfiction, impossible to put down. Like Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, Thomas Peele unpacks a tale of extremism and evil spawned by another peculiar American religion, The Nation of Islam. The malicious leader Yusuf Bey and his murderous followers and sons in the Your Black Muslim Bakery cult wreaked bloody havoc on the Bay Area for decades, until finally brought down by their brazen killing of a community journalist, Chauncey Bailey.” - Nina Burleigh, New York Times bestselling author of The Fatal Gift of Beauty

“Tough, taut, and true! Killing the Messenger is a non-fiction noir trip through the dark side of religion, journalism, racial politics, and law enforcement. A REAL thriller." – Robert Lipsyte, author of An Accidental Sportswriter

“Peele exposes the sordid and homicidal history of the Nation of Islam and its offshoots. Yusuf Bey, like David Koresh and Jim Jones before him, was the leader of a cult of personality. While most members of any cult are essentially good but misguided people, Peele shows how anyone, no matter how well-intentioned, will do almost anything – including kill – if he believes his leader is divine. Chauncey Bailey was, sadly, a victim of Bey’s megalomania.” —Karl Evanzz, author of The Judas Factor and The Messenger: The Rise and Fall of Elijah Muhammad

“Thomas Peele is one of the great investigative reporters working today.  His remarkable and obsessively researched book charts the trajectory of an Oakland crime family responsible for a string of murders. More important, perhaps, it exposes the willful myopia of the city officials and community leaders who allowed this outfit to operate over a span of decades.”  -A.C. Thompson, Investigative reporter, ProPublica and PBS Frontline

Kirkus Reviews
A tale of the rise of a Black Muslim leader, the death of a newspaper editor and the history of the Black Muslim Movement. In his debut, investigative journalist Peele attempts to trace the winding roots of the Black Muslim Movement. Beginning with Nation of Islam founder W.D. Fard, the author moves quickly to the better known Elijah Muhammad before eventually settling on his primary focus, Yusuf Ali Bey, a former barber and Nation of Islam member who recognized the financial benefits that came from his rising power. In the early 1970s, Bey formed a splinter group from the Nation of Islam, solidifying his base in an Oakland bakery while profiting from both his business and his followers. Yet Bey's radical teachings against the so-called "white devil" seemed at odds with his business practices, in which he regularly sold his products to whites. "Bey was hungry for wealth, and if he got it by selling to the devil, so what?" writes Peele. "In that sense the only color that mattered to him was that of money." For Bey, greed quickly overshadowed orthodoxy, though money wasn't all he was after. The smooth-talking leader also demanded his female followers "submit themselves completely to him," a teaching that allowed him to rape and molest dozens. After Bey's death, his son, Yusuf Ali Bey IV--better known as "Fourth"--eventually took control, ruling with his father's violent tactics. After newspaper editor Chauncey Bailey reported on Fourth and his followers, Fourth put a hit out on the journalist's life. In August of 2007, Bailey became a casualty of his story, dying at the hands of a Black Muslim assassin. A complex, carefully constructed story of the development of the Black Muslim Movement and one of its most notorious leaders.

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Read an Excerpt


There Goes Lucifer

“Why do I recall, instead of the order of seed bursting in springtime, only the yellow contents of the cistern spread over the lawn’s dead grass? Why? And how? How and why?”

—­Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

Several times a day, Yusuf Bey IV would make a hard U-­turn on San Pablo Avenue at Fifty-­ninth Street and gun his black BMW 745i toward downtown Oakland. He drove by no known rules, swinging in and out of lanes, accelerating, ignoring red lights, other cars, whatever stood in his way. He couldn’t go anywhere without scaring people, and he was always going somewhere, a cell phone pressed to his ear as the BMW coursed through the city’s streets, three or four impassive young men whom he called his soldiers dressed in cheap dark suits piled in with him. He’d speed away from the fading red and black brick walls of the compound that housed Your Black Muslim Bakery, away from the frenzied pit bull and mastiffs that guarded it, away from the steaming industrial ovens, assault rifles leaning against them, spent cartridges and banana clips scattered on the rat shit–­flecked kitchen floor.

Beneath the bakery’s signature black star-­and-­crescent sign looming over the street was an awning with words printed on it in block letters: taste of . . . the hereafter. That the kind of Islam—­or what they called Islam— ­that the Beys and their followers practiced was based on teachings that rejected belief in an afterlife escaped most passersby. Despite those words, Black Muslims didn’t believe in heaven. “I have no alternative than to tell you that there is no life beyond the grave,” Elijah Muhammad once wrote. “There is no justice in the sweet bye and bye. Immortality is NOW, HERE. We are the blessed of God and we must exert every means to protect ourselves.”

The now, here for Yusuf Bey IV was the sagging, blood-­splattered ghetto.

Fourth referred to himself as the bakery’s chief executive officer, as if that meant much for someone who had barely graduated from high school thanks only to social promotion and administrators’ unrelenting desire that he be gone. He lacked even basic business skills. But as prosecutors would one day lean over lecterns and impress upon jurors, the bakery was much more than a bakery, so he had much more to do than just keep shop anyway. Sure, the Beys churned out sugarless cakes and sold tofu burgers on whole-­grain buns. But they also churned out scores of converts to their cause who helped them run innumerable criminal enterprises. Many of those people had worshipped Fourth’s father, Yusuf Bey, as God, and those who remained were ready to follow his son’s commands to their deaths.

By late 2005, a few months before his twentieth birthday, Fourth stood at the head of the remnants of his father’s cult. He claimed that his ascension to leadership and greatness at such a young age had been prophesied in the book of Genesis. Allah had chosen him—­and him alone—­for greatness. The correct interpretations of the Bible and the Holy Qur’an made plain his destiny.

The facts of his life, though, seemed to destine him for something else.

Fourth grew up as one of the last believers in W. D. Fard’s divinity. Despite claims dating to 1930 that followers of Fard and the man who claimed to be his messenger, Elijah Muhammad, simply sought freedom, justice, and equality, the Nation of Islam they founded had largely collapsed under the weight of hate and violence that equaled those of Klansmen and Fascists. Its more well-­known members, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Elijah’s son, Wallace Muhammad, had renounced and abandoned its rhetoric for Orthodox Islam. The Nation had been left, since 1980, under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan, a man of frequent, incoherent rants whose former spokesman, Kahlid Abdul Muhammad, had called for Hitleresque mass slaughters of whites and Jews. But despite Farrakhan’s occasional feints toward moderation, the Black Muslims had, by the end of the twentieth century, become an afterthought, a bizarre, fading fringe group.

Yet in Oakland, Yusuf Bey had clung to their rhetoric and preached their radical faith to his breakaway sect. From behind brick redoubts at his compound in the city’s northwest corner, he ruled a small, cloistered cadre of believers with inviolable authority.

Fourth, the third-­oldest child and second son of a woman who had borne Yusuf Bey eight children, had grown up in a compound where his father bellowed about self-­determination yet held absolute power over his followers, controlling when they worked, ate, and spoke, when and where they slept, what they wore, where they went. Through ridicule and beatings or pretenses of love and praise, he convinced them to give themselves totally to him. Many were but indentured servants, working only for room and board. In that compound, on any given day, Bey could point to a dozen or more women and say that each, under his fictive version of Islam, was his wife; those women were taught that their lives were but the floor upon which their leader walked. In that compound children were forced to work endlessly; some were kept from school and lived in constant terror of what Bey did to them when he got them alone. Guns were omnipresent and violence was the routine way to deal with even the most minor transgression; hate was preached continuously, as was the inferiority of other races, especially whites and Jews, who were devils created by the mad scientist Big-­Headed Yakub. So was the idea that the mother plane was always on the brink of launching Armageddon.

As his father’s son, Fourth was raised to believe that he was among the last true Black Muslims. He was told he was entitled to whatever he wanted and should obtain it by any means necessary, that his value was based upon how much money he had in his pocket at any moment and what he could make others do for it. It was instilled in him that his father was a God-­king, and so he called himself “the prince of the bakery.”

Those who feared Fourth called him something else.

When he drove away from the compound, he sometimes banged a quick left or right from San Pablo and cruised along residential streets, passing a mishmash of yardless, vinyl-­sided houses that made up North Oakland, iron grates covering nearly every window and door. When he wasn’t on the phone, music thumped from the car, Usher, Tupac, 50 Cent. People had long since accepted that living near the bakery meant being under the constant dint of vigilantism and terror. They would hear the blaring hip-­hop, inch curtains aside, recognize the BMW’s twenty-­two-­inch, five-­thousand-­dollar rims, and mutter the name no one dared call Fourth to his face. “There goes Lucifer,” they’d say.

When Fourth stayed on San Pablo Avenue, North Oakland’s main drag, he rolled past coin laundries, check-­cashing joints, and neon-­glowing liquor stores, street-­corner drug hawkers and prostitutes scurrying into the darkness when they saw or heard the BMW approach. It would be just like Fourth to swing sharply to the curb, doors flying open before the car stopped, his soldiers swarming, kicking, beating, filling their pockets with money, sometimes tossing tiny glass vials of rock cocaine or heroin in the gutter and grinding their feet over them, sometimes, depending on Fourth’s whim and the girth of his own roll of bills, stealing them so they could be sold elsewhere.

Railing about drugs—­they were but the devil’s way of suppressing and destroying Blacks—­had always been a cornerstone of the mantra that enabled the Beys to control North Oakland. It was Hoover, Fourth’s father would preach, that motherfucking devil J. Edgar Hoover and his mother­fucking FBI, who first enabled the flow of heroin (he pronounced it “hair-­on”) into Black communities to push them further toward destruction, knowing that the already hopeless conditions that African Americans faced made narcotics a desperate form of escapism. Regardless of his theories (and history has proven that Hoover’s clandestine campaigns had few limits), Bey’s antidrug screeds helped bolster his image as an iron-­willed civic reformer.

Bey’s soldiers frequently attacked drug sellers, beating them senseless in the name of Allah. They were unlikely to steal their wares, though. To them, it was about righteousness: They would leave cheap, clip-­on bow ties on the blood-­speckled cement as calling cards: The Beys were here.

Fourth aspired to that same image, but if he had a chance to sell drugs stolen on the street, or to dispatch his soldiers to do muscle work for those who sold them wholesale, he would sidestep his self-­righteous spiels in favor of what mattered most to him: money.

Fourth drew his superbia from the fealty of the grim-­faced young men, their suits freshly pressed, their hair shaved in military crops, who flanked him at every turn. They lived on his largesse, nearly begging for his attention and approval. Inside the bakery, he ordered them to salute him like privates passing a general. They did little without his authority. If a drug dealer was beaten and robbed, it was because Fourth wanted that drug dealer beaten and robbed. Soldiers follow orders. Yet Fourth knew that keeping his charges close to him meant his own conduct stood under constant scrutiny. The highest disgrace a Black Muslim could face was being labeled a hypocrite. Fourth had to be careful about who was around when he ordered drugs stolen. He needed his men as close to him as intimate brothers, but he couldn’t let the exposure corrode his authority, lest his followers learn his true nature: Just like his father, Fourth falsely claimed to be motivated only by a desire to help his people, when his true obsessions were greed and power.

Fourth and his men had little to fear from police. If an officer happened past and saw Fourth’s men blitzing a corner, that officer was likely to keep driving. If the cocaine or heroin being stolen ended up being sold elsewhere, it would probably be way out in East Oakland, where it became another officer’s problem. To the cops, they were just punks beating up other punks. Maybe luck would prevail and someone would get shot; one less scumbag to worry about.

Oakland’s police department was chronically understaffed despite the city’s soaring crime rates—­higher per capita than Detroit, New York, or Los Angeles—­mostly because voters rejected property-­tax levies to pay for more cops, landing the department in a perpetual catch-­22: It needed more money for additional officers and better equipment with which to fight crime, but because it did a poor job of fighting crime in the first place, voters lacked the faith to provide more resources.

To many cops, the job was simply about racking up overtime, collecting paychecks, and surviving. In 1999, then-­governor Gray Davis signed laws that doled out the most lucrative law-­enforcement pensions in the country to California’s police officers and prison guards. Ostensibly, Davis’s plan was designed to attract and retain better-­qualified and better-­educated applicants to law-­enforcement by providing a back-­loaded incentive. A cop who retired at fifty could then embark on a second career knowing that hefty government checks were a monthly certainty for life. But, as in nearly all of his dealings, Davis was mostly motivated by the quid pro quo of campaign cash and union endorsements.

Meet the Author

THOMAS PEELE is a digital investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group and the Chauncey Bailey Project. He is also a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism.  His many honors include the Investigative Reporters and Editors Tom Renner Award for his reporting on organized crime, and the McGill Medal for Journalistic Courage. He lives in Northern California.

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Killing the Messenger 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very interesting.
TheLiteracyCookbook More than 1 year ago
On August 2, 2007, Chauncey Bailey, a journalist in Oakland, was murdered.  Very quickly we learn that his murder was a purposeful attempt to silence him.  You wonder, Who would do this?  Why?  What was Bailey reporting on? And as investigative reporter Thomas Peele unspools the story thread by thread, it is like watching a horrible accident and feeling like you cannot turn away. Subtitled A Story of Radical Faith, Racism’s Backlash, and the Assassination of a Journalist, Peele’s riveting narrative covers all of that and more.  Having begun with the murder, he turns back the clock to examine the racism that permeated the United States in the 1920’s and 1930’s and the dreadful conditions that many African-Americans endured, particularly in cities where, ironically, they had sought refuge from abuses in the South.  These conditions sparked anger and enabled some manipulative, malevolent men to take advantage of their desperate, uneducated neighbors; but even this is an understatement when you read about the cult that emerged in Oakland. I don’t want to give too much away.  But I will say this: in addition to being a heinous act, the murder of Chauncey Bailey was quite avoidable.  And by the end, you will understand why. Reviewed by Sarah Tantillo at ONLY GOOD BOOKS blog.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago