William Worthy: He opened the media to voices of resistance

William Worthy at the U.S. Passport Agency in 1957. His renewal was denied after he visited China.

William Worthy at the U.S. Passport Agency in 1957. His renewal was denied after he visited China.

William Worthy was a highly talented and educated journalist with a quality that distinguished him from so many of his contemporaries in the mass media: political courage.

Worthy died near Boston on May 4 at the age of 92. We in Workers World had known him since the early 1960s, when he wrote for the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper and the Boston Globe.

Worthy had been a prestigious Nieman Fellow at Harvard’s school of journalism. He came from a successful Black family in Boston — his father was one of the very few African-American obstetricians at a time when Jim Crow in the North, while not official, drew invisible boundaries for Black people.

Worthy put all this at risk when, toward the end of 1956 and while still in the Nieman fellowship program, he went to China and interviewed leaders of the Chinese Revolution, including Chou En-lai, for CBS News.

He had already made a name for himself by attending the Bandung Conference of African and Asian countries and liberation groups in Indonesia in 1955, where he interviewed President Sukarno. He then spent more than a month in Moscow, getting an interview with Nikita Khrushchev during the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

But it was after his China trip that the U.S. government decided they had to stop him from doing what journalists are supposed to do. His application to renew his passport in 1957 was denied. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles himself confirmed that the reason was political, complaining that Worthy “would not feel obligated, under present world conditions, to restrict his travel abroad in any way.”

Worthy appealed the decision, but didn’t get his passport back. So in 1961 he went to Cuba without one and interviewed Fidel Castro. On his return, he was arrested and charged with entering his homeland illegally — even though he produced his birth certificate as proof of citizenship.

A Miami judge the following year found him guilty and sentenced him to three months in jail. From then on, his case became widely known. Anti-war folk singer Phil Ochs wrote a song about him — “William Worthy isn’t worthy to enter our door” — and he became a household name in the rising progressive and Civil Rights Movements.

Link between ‘Third World’ and socialist countries

Worthy was not a communist, but he said clearly that his experiences both at home and abroad convinced him that the oppressed countries and peoples of the world shared common objectives with Cuba, China and the USSR. Without the support of these socialist countries, which themselves had gone through anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist revolutions, the ruling classes of the U.S. and Europe would be free to recolonize what was then called the Third World.

He was a strong supporter of Malcolm X and headed the African American journalism department of Boston University until being removed by BU President John Silber. His crime? Supporting campus workers attempting to unionize.

Worthy could have played along and made a lot of money, but instead stuck to his convictions and enjoyed a very modest lifestyle. He elevated the strategy of the rent strike in his book, “The Rape of Our Neighborhoods,” which detailed the successful fight to keep his landlord, New York’s Cabrini Hospital, from replacing his rent-controlled apartment building with a parking lot.

He was very interested in the anti-war movement and in Youth Against War & Fascism, the youth group of Workers World Party, because of its support for the struggles of the peoples of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. All of southern Asia was in turmoil then, as the U.S. moved in to take over countries where the European colonial powers had been ousted by national liberation movements.

We in YAWF organized a Public Inquest on the Indonesian massacres on June 2, 1966, at Columbia University. It was natural that Worthy should be one of the featured speakers at that event. He had been in Indonesia for the 1955 Bandung Conference and admired the stand of President Sukarno, who had pulled out of the United Nations and attempted to set up an organization for all those countries struggling against imperialism.

But in October 1965, the Indonesian military staged a coup — with much covert support from the U.S. — and began a horrendous massacre of leftists that eventually claimed the lives of a million people.

Worthy’s talk at the Inquest — which drew 1,000 people — went over this history and Washington’s role in it, saying he believed that “the CIA played a major role.” He criticized the press, including some of his own colleagues, for not exposing earlier the brutal facts and having “a double standard when it comes to who is being executed, who is being murdered and tortured.”

A transcript of the full speeches from the meeting was published by YAWF in pamphlet form as “The Silent Slaughter: The Role of the United States in the Indonesian Massacre.” YAWF was the only group in the U.S. to campaign, through meetings and street protests, against the bloody counterrevolution in Indonesia.

‘Cutting edge of New Left’

Worthy followed the many activities of YAWF and wrote an extensive piece for the April 13, 1969, Boston Sunday Globe called “The Cutting Edge of the New Left: Youth Against War & Fascism, Zealous but Prudent Revolutionaries.”

In it he described YAWF as the only anti-war organization “that has shown itself capable of mobilizing its members in the few minutes it takes to whisk a secretly arriving dignitary from Kennedy Airport to a mid-Manhattan hotel.” He added that “YAWF’s close association with the adult Workers World Party has undoubtedly helped spare it from many youthful procedural blunders.”

The article described YAWF’s assistance in the formation of the anti-war American Servicemen’s Union. The Bond, the newspaper of the ASU, was being distributed, he wrote, “in bundle lots and by individual subscriptions at virtually every U.S. military installation throughout the world — openly in some places, clandestinely at others — much to the distress of the officer corps and civilian authorities.”

He concluded that “YAWF may never get the type of on-going news coverage that the media bestow on the more impetuous and much larger SDS [Students for a Democratic Society]. But for persons interested in being avant le courant as well as au courant, the former is clearly the group to watch.”

It was with great sadness that we heard of William Worthy’s death. Journalists of his caliber are few and far between.