A journalist who was murdered for his reporting found his life’s work by reading

Credit: Thomas Peele/EdSource

In March, Oakland renamed the section of 14th Street where Chauncey Bailey was murdered.

The Hayward Daily Review subscriber used racist comments to complain about the black child his newspaper delivered. The circulation manager told the man that if he wanted to keep getting the newspaper, he had to get used to his new carrier.

Later, the manager pulled the tall, thin paperboy aside and told him that the caller didn’t like him, or that someone liked him. He told him the mean word the man used. It was the early sixties and nobody replaced it with ‘the n-word’.

The paperboy, whose name was Chauncey Bailey, said nothing, 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 “don’t” like a little (n-word) delivering its newspaper waits for someone to write for it.’

Credit: Chauncey Bailey Project

Chauncey Bailey

Bailey was 12 or 13. He had mapped out his life path: journalism. He would literally sit on it until his last step. On August 2, 2007, as he was walking to work as editor of the Oakland Post, a masked killer ran up to Bailey and shot him three times at close range with a shotgun. Bailey was 58. The killer later admitted that the leader of a black Islamist sect to which he belonged ordered the attack after learning that Bailey was working on a story about him.

Within days, journalists from Northern California formed the Chauncey Bailey Project, a concerted effort to complete Bailey’s work. We modeled it after a similar effort in 1976 after Arizona Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles died in a car bomb. Reporters from all over 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 spent four years as the chief investigative reporter for the Bailey project, during the trial and sentencing of his killers, and wrote a book on the case, “Killing the Messenger.”

Last month Oakland renamed the part of 14e Street, ironically the location of EdSource’s office, where Bailey walked that fateful morning, Chauncey Bailey Way in his honor after years of urging from his family and journalists. In a ceremony that was both tearful and joyful, much was said about the First Amendment, Bailey’s horrific murder, and his lifelong dedication to public service.

Credit: Thomas Peele/EdSource

In March, Oakland renamed the section of 14th Street where Chauncey Bailey was murdered.

However, the Bailey backstory is about a young black man who educated himself to prominence in his profession and then used that profession to educate and inform others.

It started in the Hayward High School Library in southern Alameda County. Bailey had a violent stutter in his youth and the library soon became his place of solace, a place where he lost himself in books and acquired a lifelong obsession with reading. 2011 a mural with two images of Bailey was painted on the outside wall of the library by then-student Jamil Holmes, where it stands today.

As he read and simply lived as a black teenager, Bailey became acutely aware of the struggles of his people. His parents had bought a house in Hayward in the 1950s that was not subject to restrictive deed agreements that separated the California neighborhoods. But shortly after moving in, racists burned a cross on their lawn. Bailey and his siblings weren’t allowed to play outside when their parents weren’t home.

Television brought him images of the massacre of the civil rights struggle in the south, Bull Connor’s water cannons and German Shepherds, protesters on Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, dead little girls in a church in Birmingham.

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

The Black Power movement still appealed to Bailey. He almost 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 to take up the professor’s challenge, he would first have to prove himself at a smaller publication. He got a job as a reporter for the Sun Reporter, the Black weekly newspaper in San Francisco. There, in the turbulent late 60s and early 1970s, Bailey cut his teeth.

From there, he enrolled at a Columbia University summer program for minority journalists. He dropped on and was hired at the Hartford Courant (cq), then a paper shop for the major metropolitan newspapers where he wanted to work.

Hartford couldn’t hold Bailey 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 young man. No longer bothered by stuttering, he became known as a ruthless and prodigious reporter. He saw stories everywhere, especially about black entrepreneurs, teachers and students.

Literacy was very important to Bailey. His ex-wife, Robin Hardin, told me that their apartment was full of magazines and books. Bailey often traveled by bus through Detroit. Hardin said it disturbed him to see people sitting in their chairs without reading anything. He knew that only by being informed could black people overcome poverty and systemic racism.

So he started throwing a quarter into newspaper boxes at bus stops and picking up a pile of papers. He would then walk through the bus and hand them out to the riders. “Here, get a newspaper,” he would say. “Here, read the newspaper.” Words, Hardin said, “meaned so much to Chauncey.”

Hardin had two young nieces who moved in with the couple. When the kids were in grade school, Bailey went to their principal and suggested they start a school newspaper. He told Hardin that children who didn’t like to read, or who had nothing to read at home, would at least read the stories their friends had written. He enforced deadlines, put down the paper, and printed copies. The publication turned out to be a great success.

Eventually Bailey grew tired of the long Detroit winters and longed for the California sunshine. He moved to the Oakland Tribune in 1993, where he continued to write several stories a day on all aspects of black life.

He often wrote about a company called Your Black Muslim Bakery, run by a former hairdresser named Joseph Stephens, who reinvented himself as a religious prophet and called himself Dr. Yusef called Bey. Outwardly, Bey promoted black self-determination through entrepreneurship. 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 out of 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 soon Earth in an Armageddon-like war started by a giant spaceship called “the mother plane” orbiting the planet.

Bey even unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Oakland in 1994, a race that Bailey covered. He died in 2004 while facing multiple child rape charges. Bailey covered the court proceedings, which led to clashes with Bey’s followers, who believed Bey to be divinely and religiously justified in trying to conceive 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 errors. He threatened to write negative stories about the State Department of Motor Vehicles after it refused to intervene in a dispute between Bailey and a man who had bought a car from him. He also wrote a story about a company owned by a woman he was dating without first consulting the editors.

He was soon appointed editor of the Oakland Post, the city’s black weekly. He had been to the Post for just a few weeks when he started working on a story about Yusuf Bey IV bankrupting the bakery. A source for that story came to the paper to see Bailey. A woman who worked there had once worked for the Beys as well. She called and word trickled back to Bey IV, who thought he could destroy the story by killing the reporter.

Instead, ultimately convicted of ordering the attack on Bailey and ordering followers to kill two other men unrelated to Bailey’s murder, 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 had visited those places himself. The reporter who started an elementary school newspaper. The boy who, when he was scolded by a racist, made a plan and found his way in life.

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

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

To receive more such reports, click here to sign up for EdSource’s free daily email on the latest developments in education.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.