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.
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.