William Worthy '42

Journalist, civil-rights activist, remains as vigilant as ever

For half a century, journalist William Worthy ’42 has forged a path in the coverage of global events. Few have dared to accompany him, although many have followed in his footsteps.Following a distinguished performance in 1955 as a foreign correspondent in the Soviet Union for CBS News and the Baltimore Afro-American, Worthy, then a thirty-five-year-old Nieman Fellow at Harvard, slipped into China in 1956-57 to report for forty-one days in defiance of a U.S. travel ban. Upon his return home, the State Department denied him a new passport when he refused to promise that he would curtail future travel.

So it was without a passport that Worthy in 196l traveled to forbidden Cuba shortly after the U.S. invasion. After four visits to the revolutionary island — from which he reported and helped to produce an ABC-TV documentary, “Yanki, No!” — his own government tried and sentenced him to jail. When a federal appeals court unanimously overturned his conviction in 1964, ruling the travel restrictions to be unconstitutional, Worthy was still journeying — without benefit of passport — in North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia. Not until 1968 did he receive a new one.

In 1981, Worthy and two colleagues were returning from a seven-week CBS News assignment in Iran. At the Boston airport, the FBI and CIA confiscated from their baggage Iranian paperback reprints of classified CIA documents seized when Iranian students took over the U.S. embassy in Teheran in 1979. Worthy and his colleagues, with ACLU legal support, sued the two agencies and won $16,000 in Fourth Amendment damages.

Perhaps protest folk singer Phil Ochs best entered Worthy into the annals of legend on his debut album, All the News That’s Fit to Sing,with “Ballad of William Worthy.” He sang, “William Worthy isn’t worthy to enter our door, went down to Cuba, he’s not American any more. 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.’”

Currently, Worthy serves as special assistant to the dean of the School of Communications at Howard University, where he taught between 1990 and 1993 as Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Professor. Worthy has often introduced his students to James Baldwin’s observation that “we are trapped in history, and history is trapped in us.” In other words, quotes Worthy, “We see only what is already in our eye. We learn only what we are already inwardly prepared to accept.” As illustration, he cites an experience a decade ago that embarrasses him to this day. Worthy, suffering from an infected finger, visited a health clinic in his hometown of Boston. A few minutes after his arrival, a woman, wearing a white smock and a stethoscope around her neck, appeared in the waiting room. Worthy asked her, “Is there a doctor in the house?” Her response — “I’m a doctor” — carried “only a mild tonal rebuke,” remembers Worthy, “which spared me from the humiliation of a precipitous fall into the ranks of hopelessly sexist male pigs.”

He juxtaposes this episode with an incident as a Bates junior when he delivered a strong pacifist speech during a morning chapel service in November 1940. According to the Lewiston Evening Journal, the speech was greeted by “sustained student applause.” In the audience was Poland-born freshman Charlotte Stachelek ’44. She and Worthy had not yet met, but they would later become good friends. Says Worthy, “Not until years later did Charlotte tell me that as the applause rang out, she turned to a U.S.-born woman classmate and said, ‘That’s the man I’m going to marry!’ The conditioned peer-pressure response was instantaneous: ‘But he’s a Negro.’”

Worthy recalls that Charlotte, having grown up in a Polish community in the United States, did not learn English until kindergarten, “thus her innocence and a blessedly complete escape from early entrapment in U.S. racial culture. Just as the woman physician was generously understanding toward my culturally blinding sexism, so, too, I avoid lumping Charlotte’s classmate (and many others like her) into the pathologically racist ranks of Los Angeles detective Mark Fuhrman.”

Worthy reflects further: “We are morally mandated to demand of the entire educational system — including Bates College — a challenging curriculum that mercilessly critiquesall encrusted societal norms, especially those historically shown to be lethal, contrived, and manipulative: racism, sexism, militarism. What could be more contrived — and a clearer propaganda portent of the coming Holocaust — than the 1933 telegram from the mayor of a remote German town to authorities in Berlin right after Hitler had decreed a nationwide boycott of all Jewish-owned businesses: ‘Send us a Jew for the boycott.’”

A sociology major while at Bates, Worthy draws frequently from a deep well of historical, psychological, and literary evidence to support his points of view, quoting as easily from Frederick the Great (“If my soldiers ever started to think, not one of them would remain in the ranks”) as from World War I opponent Randolph Bourne (“War is the health of the state”).

Ever vigilant, he criticizes the “U.S. media for heedlessly advocating worldwide ‘market reforms’ for peoples of color who — from the 1500s to the 1900s — were originally impoverished and humiliated by Western gunboat colonialism and by market-driven ruthlessness. What if today’s U.S. repeat export performance is destined to recreate neocolonialist horror stories and wars– with Bates students conscripted to crush clearly foreseeable insurgencies worldwide?”

A lifetime of independent positions prompts this gentle man with commitments of steel to preempt his naysayers. “If in the 1990s, a U.S.-led relapse into Kipling’s ‘white man’s burden’ seems wholly implausible, check back to April 18, 1993, when the New York Times Magazinepublished an astounding article headlined ‘Colonialism’s Back — and Not a Moment Too Soon,’ with the subhead ‘Let’s face it: Some countries are just not fit to govern themselves.’

Worthy marvels at such Times hubris. “Colonialism is slavery,” he insists. “But theTimes realizes the American public is so gullible and so poorly educated they can get away with such blatant advocacy.”

Worthy spends his time seeing that they don’t.

By Phyllis Graber Jensen