Chauncey Bailey Project

A journalist killed for his reporting found his life’s work through reading

By Thomas Peele

The subscriber to the Hayward Daily Review used a racial slur to complain about the Black child delivering his newspaper. The circulation manager told the man that if he wanted to keep getting the paper, he should get used to his new carrier.

Later, the manager pulled the tall, skinny paperboy aside and told him the caller didn’t like him, or anyone like him. He told him the vile word the man used. It was the early 1960s and no one was yet substituting “the n-word” for it.

The paperboy, whose name was Chauncey Bailey, didn’t say anything, his younger half-brother, Mark Cooley, who witnessed the scene, told me in 2010. But as they walked home, Bailey told Cooley that if the subscriber “doesn’t like a little (n-word) delivering his paper, wait until one’s writing for it.”

Bailey was 12 or 13. He’d figured out his life’s path: journalism. He would stay on it literally until his last step. On Aug. 2, 2007, as he walked to his job as editor of the Oakland Post, a masked assassin ran up on Bailey and shot him three times at point-blank range with a shotgun. Bailey was 58. The killer later admitted the leader of a Black-Muslim cult he belonged to had ordered the hit after learning Bailey was working on a story about him.

Within days, Northern California journalists formed the Chauncey Bailey Project, a collaborative effort to finish Bailey’s work. We modeled it on a similar effort in 1976 after Arizona Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles died in a car bombing. Reporters from around the country flocked to Phoenix to send a simple message: You can’t kill a story by killing a journalist.

We carried the same banner in Oakland. I worked as the Bailey project’s lead investigative reporter for four years, through the trial and conviction of his killers, and wrote a book about the case, “Killing the Messenger.”

Last month, Oakland renamed the portion of 14th Street, ironically the location of EdSource’s office, where Bailey was walking that fateful morning, Chauncey Bailey Way in his honor after years of pushing by his family and journalists. During a ceremony that was both tearful and joyous, much was said about the First Amendment, Bailey’s heinous murder and his lifelong commitment to public service.

The backstory about Bailey, though, is one about a young Black man who educated himself to a place of prominence in his profession and then used that profession to educate and inform others.

It began in the Hayward High School Library in southern Alameda County. Bailey had a bad childhood stutter, and the library quickly became his place of solace, one where he lost himself in books and acquired a lifelong obsession with reading. In 2011, a mural featuring two images of Bailey was painted on the library’s exterior wall by then-student Jamil Holmes, where it remains.

As he read and simply lived as a Black teenager, Bailey became keenly aware of his people’s struggles. His parents had bought a home in Hayward that wasn’t subject to restrictive deed covenants that kept California neighborhoods segregated in the 1950s. But shortly after they moved in, racists burned a cross on their lawn. Bailey and his siblings were forbidden from playing outside when their parents weren’t home.

The television brought him images of the carnage of the civil rights struggle in the South, Bull Connor’s water cannons and German shepherds, marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, dead little girls in a Birmingham church.

What Bailey could contribute to the fight were words. He enrolled in Oakland’s Merritt College after graduating from high school in 1966. It was five years after Merritt community college students Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panthers. Bailey came close to joining the Panthers himself but instead transferred to San Jose State’s journalism program. He graduated in 1972.

The Black Power movement still appealed to Bailey. He nearly became a reporter for the Panthers’ newspaper. But one of his professors urged him to think bigger. Go integrate a big-city newspaper, the professor suggested.

If Bailey was going to achieve the professor’s challenge, he would need to prove himself at a smaller publication first. He landed a reporting job at the Sun Reporter, San Francisco’s Black weekly newspaper. There, in the turbulent late ‘60s and early 1970s, Bailey cut his teeth.

From there he enrolled in a Columbia University summer program for minority journalists. He stood out and was hired at the Hartford Courant, then a feeder paper to the major metropolitan dailies where he yearned to work.

Hartford couldn’t hold Bailey for long. But Detroit could. Hired by the Detroit News to cover city hall and African American affairs, he achieved what he dreamed of as a youth. No longer hampered by a stutter, he became known as a relentless and prodigious reporter. He saw stories everywhere, especially ones about Black entrepreneurs, teachers and students.

Literacy mattered greatly to Bailey. His ex-wife, Robin Hardin, told me their apartment overflowed with magazines and books. Bailey often got around Detroit by bus. Hardin said it distressed him to see people sitting in their seats, not reading anything. He knew that only through being informed could Black people overcome poverty and systemic racism.

So, he started dropping a quarter in newspaper boxes at bus stops and grabbing a stack of papers. He’d then walk through the bus handing them out to riders. “Here, have a newspaper,” he’d say. “Here, read the paper.” Words, Hardin said, “meant so much to Chauncey.”

Hardin had two young nieces who came to live with the couple. When the children were in elementary school, Bailey went to their principal and proposed starting a school newspaper. He told Hardin that kids who didn’t like to read, or who had nothing to read at home, would at least read stories their friends wrote. He enforced deadlines, laid out the paper and printed copies. The publication proved a great success.

Eventually, Bailey grew tired of Detroit’s long winters and yearned for California sunshine. He moved to the Oakland Tribune in 1993, where he kept writing multiple stories a day about all aspects of Black life.

He wrote frequently about a business called Your Black Muslim Bakery run by a former hairdresser named Joseph Stephens who’d reinvented himself as a religious prophet, calling himself Dr. Yusef Bey. Outwardly, Bey promoted Black self-determination through enterprise. Inwardly, his organization was a cult and criminal organization. He fathered more than 40 children, some with girls as young as 13. Children were kept from school, forced to work and attend classes where they were taught that white people and Jews were devils, that Black people were superior beings and would soon conquer the earth in an Armageddon-like war started by a giant spaceship called “the mother plane” that orbited the planet.

Bey even ran unsuccessfully for Oakland mayor in 1994, a race Bailey covered. He died in 2004 while facing multiple charges of child rape. Bailey covered the court proceedings, which led to confrontations with Bey’s followers, who considered Bey God-like and religiously justified to impregnate children.

Bey’s son Yusef Bey IV (Bey named five sons after himself) eventually took over the bakery.

Bailey was fired by the Tribune in 2007 for multiple ethical lapses. He threatened to write negative stories about the state Department of Motor Vehicles after it declined to intervene in a dispute between Bailey and a man who had bought a car from him. He also wrote a story about a business owned by a woman he was dating without first consulting editors.

He was quickly named editor of the Oakland Post, the city’s Black weekly paper. He had been at the Post for only a few weeks when he began working on a story about Yusuf Bey IV running the bakery into bankruptcy. A source for that story came to the paper to see Bailey. A woman who worked there had once also worked for the Beys. She made a call, and word filtered back to Bey IV, who thought he could kill the story by killing the reporter.

Instead, eventually convicted of ordering the hit on Bailey and ordering followers to kill two other men unrelated to Bailey’s slaying, he put himself in prison for life with no chance of parole.

But he also robbed the world of the light that was Chauncey Bailey, the reporter who showed up at school events, school board meetings, who understood the importance of high school libraries, community colleges and state universities because he’d navigated those places himself. The reporter who started an elementary school newspaper. The kid who, when he was slurred by a racist, made a plan and found his path in life.

Fifteen years later, hardly anyone knows Bey’s name.

In Oakland, you can now see Bailey’s on street signs.

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