Hundreds fill church to mourn slain editor
By Angela Hill, Jamaal Johnson and Cecily Burt, Chauncey Bailey Project
OAKLAND — An overflow crowd spilled out of St. Benedict’s Catholic Church in East Oakland on Wednesday as hundreds of mourners came to pay their respects to slain journalist Chauncey Wendell Bailey Jr., remembered as a crusading reporter, devoted father and a mentor and role model to many young journalists.
Whether people knew Bailey well or not, or liked him or not, he made a difference in many lives.
At least 700 people crowded inside the church, squeezed into pews, onto folding chairs or stood three deep along the back wall and up the sides to the altar. Dozens more crowded the vestibule and a long line waiting to get inside flowed down the street for more than an hour after the service began.
The traditional Catholic Mass was interspersed with rousing gospel music by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and jazz — Bailey’s favorite — courtesy of members of the Oakland-East Bay Symphony Orchestra and conductor Michael Morgan on saxophone.
City leaders, local clergy, fellow reporters and others in the community who knew Bailey personally or professionally spoke of his sincere love of journalism and his tireless efforts to dig out the truth and serve his community.
“He was an outspoken, articulate, often uncompromising black man, who said what he wanted and meant what he said,” the Rev. Jay Matthews told the audience. “He tried for more than 30 years to quench our thirst for truth, for justice and equality.”
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Bailey, 57, editor of the Oakland Post weekly newspaper, was shot and killed last Thursday as he walked on a downtown Oakland street on his way to work. Police say a 19-year-old worker for Your Black Muslim Bakery has confessed to the killing, saying he did it to stop Bailey from writing negative articles about the bakery. The suspect was formally charged with murder Tuesday.
“I experienced Chauncey in that very special, sometimes tenuous world — the relationship between the journalist and the politician,” Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums said. Some chuckles arose at the remark. “One thing stands out — he was always there,” he said, to rousing applause.
“Whether he was the lone journalist on a sunny spring Saturday in Oakland, watching several hundred children participate in a track meet, or in a large media event, there he was, camera in one hand, tape recorder in another, listening carefully, asking the first question, setting the tone,” Dellums said.
Matthews remembered Bailey’s love of reading, and his efforts to get others to follow suit.
“When Chauncey was living in Detroit, he often took public transportation,” Matthews said. “On the bus, he noticed the folks there, and not one had any reading materials on them. The next day, he brought with him several newspapers and passed out sections and encouraged the folks to read. He did this for several weeks until folks caught on and began bringing their own reading materials.”
Robin Hardin, Bailey’s ex-wife, spoke of a different, more private side of the slain journalist, who she knew as a loving friend and devoted father.
“He loved everyone,” she said. “It didn’t matter if you were the president of the United States or the person on the corner.”
‘Horrified and mortified’
Friends and colleagues from around the country crowded into the church to pay their last respects, many walking past a large sign reading “STOP Black on Black Violence” held aloft by Darnell Levinston, a member of the East Bay Dragons black motorcycle club.
“I am horrified and mortified (by his death),” said Luenell, a movie actress who worked alongside Bailey at Soulbeat Television Network. “His blood was spilled in the streets he covered. He was the unifying person for all the former Soulbeat family.”
“He was somebody that was tied to his coverage of the black community,” said Paul Grabowicz, who worked with Bailey at the Tribune and is now assistant dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
Colleagues described Bailey as a consummate journalist who was always “on,” even if that meant conducting an unscheduled interview on his cell phone and writing notes on yellow Post-its that he slapped onto his arm while walking down the street, said Oakland Post publisher Paul Cobb. He always wore a suit and tie, Cobb said, so he’d be ready to jump in front of the camera when the print stories were put to bed.
“I called Chauncey the James Brown of news because he was the hardest working man in media,” Cobb said, adding that his editor was like the black version of White House press corps veteran Helen Thomas.
He was as dogged as an old school newsman but he was also a trailblazer, collecting and disseminating the news in different media formats long before the term multimedia was as commonplace as it is today, Cobb said.
“I want to make his untimely, forced exodus our genesis,” Cobb said. “(I call for) a renewed advocacy for investigative journalism. We should continue his legacy of not being afraid to call the wicked man wicked to the wicked man’s face.”
‘The message will prevail’
Cobb said Bailey’s voice may have been silenced, but the investigative work he was doing into Your Black Muslim Bakery’s finances would go on.
“If we can’t find something to die for, it’s not worth it,” said Cobb. “To the forces behind and connected to this assassination … it ain’t over. You might have assassinated the messenger, but the message will prevail.”
Rodney Best, one of many young journalists mentored by Bailey, remembered his generous nature and his large vocabulary. He recalled a 1998 article in the Sun-Reporter with his byline, but it was really Bailey who should have had the credit.
“I gave him five sentences and he turned it into four paragraphs,” Best said. “He was a warrior for equality, a crusader for black advancement and a loving father.”
After the 21/2-hour service ended, hundreds of mourners filed from the church to the rousing strains of “When the Saints Come Marching In” and milled around outside.
Bailey’s dark wooden casket, draped with a colorful African kente cloth, was carried to the front steps to receive a final blessing with holy water before being escorted in a lengthy funeral procession to Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Hayward.
Someone had placed on the casket a “756” pin commemorating the historic home run hit by Barry Bonds Tuesday night, in homage to Bailey’s love of baseball. Bailey had planned to run a special edition of the Post when Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s long-held home run record, but he never got the chance.
Noted defense attorney John Burris paused to reflect on the irony of Bailey’s murder. The fact that it was apparently carried out by members of the African American community that Bailey had strived so long and hard to give a voice to, was especially painful, he said.
“It’s very important when tragic events like this happen, to use the event to energize others to take up the (fight),” he said. “Someone has to be prepared to ask the tough questions. It’s incumbent on others to step forward.”
Oakland Tribune staff writer Matthew Cooper contributed to this report.