William Worthy, defiant journalist, dies at 92

William Worthy, a correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper who made news — and inspired a folk song — by challenging U.S. policies to report from China and Cuba in the 1950s and ’60s, died May 4 at a senior living facility in Brewster, Mass. He was 92.

The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease, said a friend, Michael Lindsey.

The son of an obstetrician, Mr. Worthy grew up in Boston in a family that was active in progressive causes and that encouraged his intellectual development from an early age. He called himself “anti-colonialist, anti-militarist, anti-imperialist.”

He claimed conscientious objector status during World War II and later pursued a career in journalism with multiple outlets, most prominently with the Baltimore Afro-American. In 1956, along with two other journalists, he defied State Department travel restrictions to visit Communist-led China. At the time he held a Nieman fellowship, a prestigious honor in journalism; Time magazine reported that he was the first U.S. reporter to enter China in seven years.

That 41-day reporting trip — which included an interview with leader Zhou Enlai — was his most noted early act in what he described as his pursuit of the open exchange of information.


William Worthy poses outside the State Department passport division in 1957 after appearing before the Board of Passport Appeals. (William J. Smith/AP)

Four years later, and without a valid passport, he traveled to Cuba to report on the effects of Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution. When Mr. Worthy returned to the United States, he was convicted of illegally entering the country.

The conviction, later reversed by an appellate court, inspired protest singer Phil Ochs to record the “Ballad of William Worthy” in 1964.

William Worthy isn’t worthy to enter our door, goes the refrain,

Went down to Cuba, he’s not American anymore

But somehow it is strange to hear the State Department say

You are living in the free world, in the free world you must stay.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Worthy challenged the U.S. government with his reportage from Iran after the Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini.

In the course of his reporting, Mr. Worthy obtained copies of documents that were stolen from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran during the hostage crisis and later published in Iran. U.S. government officials seized one set of copies. Mr. Worthy and his colleagues provided another copy to The Washington Post, which published a series of articles based on the documents and other sources.

The journalists later reached a legal settlement with the U.S. government in which the reporters were awarded $16,000 stemming from the confiscation of the volumes.

“Americans have a right to know what’s going on in the world in their name,” he said at the time.

Mr. Worthy reported for media outlets including CBS and was honored in 2008 by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University with an award for “conscience and integrity in Journalism.”

William Worthy Jr. was born July 7, 1921, in Boston. In 1942, he received a bachelor’s degree from Bates College in Maine. In the early years of his career, he was a public relations assistant to civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph.

In his reporting, Mr. Worthy seemed to seek out perspectives not widely understood in the West. After his trip to China, he said the position of the average Chinese was, “We like the American people but we don’t agree with their government.”

He added that he had “no way of fathoming whether they believe, themselves, what they say.”

He reported from the Soviet Union when few Western reporters were permitted there and later from North Vietnam and Cambodia. He said he recognized at an early date the dangers of military engagement in the region.

“I traveled to Vietnam for the first time in the spring of 1953, and found the situation to be drastically different from the New York Times accounts,” he told the Harvard Crimson in 1977. “The French were completely hopeless, and I could see America slowly getting sucked into the tragedy.”

Mr. Worthy taught at institutions including Boston University, the University of Massachusetts and Howard University. In 1976, he published the book “The Rape of Our Neighborhoods: And How Communities Are Resisting Take-overs by Colleges, Hospitals, Churches, Businesses, and Public Agencies.”

Survivors include a sister, Ruth Worthy of Washington.

Raymond H. Boone, the former editor of the Baltimore Afro-American, said in an interview that he admired Mr. Worthy’s “courage and . . . his commitment to the First Amendment on a global level.”

“He wanted people to know what was happening in the world,” Boone said, “and that was reflected in our conversations when I would call him in Boston in the last five years. I would ask him, ‘Bill, how are you doing?’ He would say, ‘Ray, how is the world doing?’ ”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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