With exceptions noted and forgiven, Killing The Messenger is a very well-written and thoroughly researched book; this becomes apparent as one gets deeper into it. Like James A. Michener, Peele begins at the roots of his subject, in this case a man named Wallace Dodd Ford, a.k.a. Walli Dodd Fard (and many other aliases), who filled out a draft card on June 5, 1917, stating his birthplace as Shinka, Afghanistan, his birth date as February 26, 1893, and his race as “Caus” (presumably an abbreviation of Caucasian). This is ironic, since he was the co-founder of what would become the Black Muslim faith, after teaming up with a spiritual charlatan who styled himself Noble Drew Ali from Morocco, though he was reputedly born Timothy Drew from North Carolina. (Peele makes clear that the Black Muslim “faith” is Islamic in name only, just as the Ku Klux Klan bills itself as a Christian organization.)

The book, backed up by 74 pages of acknowledgments, notes, and bibliography, traces the history not only of the group itself, which was based upon “Tricknology” (a term coined by its founders to describe the misinformation and outright lies foisted upon black people by whites to keep them confused and disunited), but also the individual histories of the principal men involved. Unlike the Black Panther Party, which had its roots in Oakland and was for the most part purely political, the Black Muslims cloaked their militancy in pseudo-religion, encouraging violence not only in their brainwashed believers but also providing a justification to those who simply wanted to act out their hatred by killing. Peele brings vital historical context to the contemporary aspects of his tale: the establishment of the Bey family in Oakland, the rise and fall of Your Black Muslim Bakery, and the eventual murder of Chauncey Bailey—a foolish, arrogant, and typically thuggish act, which, rather than removing a perceived threat to the organization, actually brought it down.

As he does for virtually all the dramatis personae in this book, Peele offers detailed studies of their origins and backgrounds, often not without sympathy in regard to conditions, environment, and events in their lives which may have contributed to what they became. For example, we learn the life history of Devaughndre Monique Broussard, who would become Bey’s hit-man for Chauncey Bailey’s murder. It is an all-too-typical story of a young black man raised in a soul-crushing environment of poverty, drugs, and violence in Richmond, CA, and who wasn’t strong enough to somehow rise above it.

As Peele acknowledges, though most of these men had seedy backgrounds, it was pretty difficult for any black man, especially during the first half of the 20th century, to be squeaky clean in regard to white laws, morals, and values. Peele’s extensive research on the oppression of black people in the US through most of the 20th century, explains part of the book’s subtitle: Racism’s Backlash—the backlash being the rise of an organization claiming to be a religious faith that professes hate toward white people. Peele is not hesitant to give white devils their due, whether murderous police, racist politicians and journalists, or discriminatory policies. He describes several attacks by police upon Black Muslims in various cities that ended in outright murder of black men, the officers involved invariably cleared of any wrongdoing. No wonder that, then as now, certain young black men would be attracted to an ideology that encouraged them to fight back.

Throughout the book’s 350 pages, Peele presents detailed accounts of how various individuals became involved with and/or ensnared by the Black Muslim movement; some idealistically, many—especially young black men intellectually stunted by the public-education system and emotionally scarred by the judicial system—because it offered opportunities no one else was offering. Broussard, for example, a once-promising student who lost his way, is Peele’s Exhibit A: an impressionable youth who was lured by the financial and emotional shelter the Beys provided.

Did anything positive come out of this? While Peele seems a bit cloudy on this point, he also appears to imply that the answer is yes. Though he may have somewhat embellished the grit and grimness of Oakland, he also acknowledges the thousands of young black men taken in off the streets, or when fresh out of prison, who would have likely been behind bars—or behind bars again—had they not been offered productive jobs and educated in matters of self-worth, physical and mental discipline, and personal integrity, and who may well have gone on to live better lives by using these teachings as a basis to self-educate and think for themselves. In other words, Peele seems to realize there are shades of gray in everything—no absolute evil, no untarnished good, and few saints or devils without their own motives.

Jess Mowry is the author of 15 books and numerous short stories, mostly about black youth in Oakland, California. He lives in Oakland.