- Killing the Messenger – A Story of Radical Faith, Racism’s Backlash, and The Assasination of a Journalist
- by Thomas Peele
- Publisher – Crown
- Copyright – 2012
- 366 pages
Rating – 8/10
Review – During the holidays, I was loafing at the Mobile Public Library. With quite a bit of down time, I decided to get several books and I was in the mood for true crime. Thomas Peele’s Killing the Messenger was the last of the four books that I found; it was the sort of oh-by-the-way, no-risk checkout that you can get from the library. I thought that the odds were – at best – fifty-fifty that I’d ever read it.
Killing was the last of the four checkouts that I read and I’m glad that I did. It’s the sort of terrific, you-wouldn’t-believe-it-if-it-didn’t-really-happen tale that makes true crime worthwhile.
The Black Muslims in Oakland
Back during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Black Muslim faith gained popularity. Two brothers from Santa Barbara, California, Joseph and Frank Stephens joined the Black Muslims. Later, they changed their names to Yusuf Ali Bey and Abdul Raab Muhammad and moved to Oakland. Muhammad soon left town, but Bey stayed in Oakland, where he dissociated himself from the Nation of Islam and built his own radical, Muslim organization.
Author Peele alleges that Bey managed to intimidate the Oakland police, which insulated Bey from prosecution for the many crimes in which the Black Muslims were involved. Bey recruited potential members from society’s forgotten, often finding new converts in prisons.
Bey also quickly began taking plural wives. His treatment of women was beyond harsh. He often raped pre-pubescent girls, many of whom would became pregnant as soon as they were able to conceive. One woman said that being female in the Black Muslims was just like being a slave.
Failure by Authorities
Peele is absolutely scathing toward the Oakland PD and its hands-off, bureaucratic response to Bey. What the public knew about the Muslims mainly came from an often-sympathetic press, that gave Bey and his followers some strokes for their efforts to employ felons, people other employers wouldn’t touch. However, Peele maintains that the Muslims’ businesses were largely a sham aimed at bilking government programs. Eventually, Bey became prominent enough to run for mayor of Oakland in 1994 and then to receive Jerry Brown as a visitor. Brown asked for Bey’s support when Brown was planning his successful run for mayor in 1998.
Authorities also failed to stop the rampant child abuse. The girls who gave birth to dozens of Bey’s children received many government benefits as a result. Bey kept all of the money. Moreover, social workers never investigated whether the girls were the victims of sexual abuse or if they were even attending school.
But by the time Bey died in September 2003, there was dawning awareness that things were rotten with the Black Muslims. Peele alleges that Bey was suffering from AIDS at the time of his death.
Bey IV Takes Over
Given Bey’s dozens of children, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be a violent battle for succession. After murdering all of his rivals (including his brother), Bey’s son Yusuf Ali Bey IV gained control of Oakland’s Black Muslims. Bey IV’s leadership sealed the cult’s doom. He had all of his father’s anger, but even less restraint.
One would think that Killing the Messenger would lose momentum after the death of a figure as colorful as Bey. Instead, the plot thickens. Bey IV actually makes his father look somewhat restrained. Under Bey IV, the group engaged in a violent crime spree that included the murder of journalist Chauncey Bailey.
One of the frustrations of reading Killing is that Bailey is still a mystery at book’s end. Peele recounts Bailey’s childhood in Hayward, California, and his rise in journalism as the profession opened to minorities following the 1960s. At the time of his murder, through a series of bad choices, the 57-year-old Bailey had been reduced to working for a small weekly paper (the Oakland Post) that served Oakland’s African-American community.
Peele clearly finds Bailey to be an ambivalent character. He has only minimal respect for Bailey’s work as a journalist. Given the unanswered questions about Bailey, it seems as though Peele may have gotten little cooperation from those who knew him. Killing the Messenger’s focal point is the Black Muslims, not Chauncey Bailey.
Bailey eventually became interested in Oakland’s Black Muslims and began asking questions. Bey IV became alarmed about what might come to light and ordered Bailey’s murder.
Too Much Peele
I like Killing the Messenger. It’s an amazing story that holds the reader from start to finish. Just when you think the book might lose momentum, there is another twist. Peele deserves much credit for his research into a complex, decades-long story. Another strength is that Peele spends very little time on the boring minutiae of the court proceedings.
Unfortunately, there are a few issues. Peele inserts his opinions into the narrative far too many times. Every time he recounts something awful that the Black Muslims did, he feels obligated to mention something awful that white people have done to black people. Peele wants the reader to have absolutely no doubt that he “gets it” – America has been awful to its black citizens and Peele deplores it. Unfortunately, in the context of Killing, his comments detract from the story.
To read Killing, you have accept Peele as your guide and he’s going to subject you to his politics. Despite that, I recommend the book. The power of the story overcomes the author’s digressions.