William Worthy

City Paper

On his 1964 album, “All the News That’s Fit to Sing,” Phil Ochs released “The Ballad of William Worthy,” a two-minute, 12-second recounting of the strange tribulations of a reporter for the Afro-American.

Worthy had gone to Cuba in 1961, two years after the revolution. He interviewed Fidel Castro, but when he tried to return to the U.S., where he was born in 1921, the State Department detained him. He was sentenced to three months in prison, though his conviction was overturned later. A young William Kunstler served on his legal team.

Worthy was traveling without a passport.

The State Department had declined to renew Worthy’s passport after he had traveled to China in 1957. So Worthy had gone to Cuba without a U.S. passport, and was arrested upon his return.

Ochs sang, “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 1981 Worthy went to Iran on a reporting trip. While there he bought a cache of formerly secret U.S. government documents that the Iranian Revolutionaries had collected into a book. Widely read in the middle-east and Europe, the material was unknown in the U.S. It included raw CIA reports, including reports of meetings with agents, some of which had been reconstructed from shredded documents. When Worthy came back, the F.B.I. confiscated one set of the books. The Justice Department threatened to prosecute him for possession of  “classified documents.”

Worthy had another copy, which he gave to the Washington Post’s Scott Armstrong, who published a blockbuster series of stories about how the U.S. had manipulated Iranian politics for decades before the 1979 uprising and hostage crisis.

Those document “put a lie to every defense that had been given for the U.S role in Iran over a 30 or 40 year period up to that point,” Armstrong told Amy Goodman of the radio show Democracy Now! earlier this year. U.S. agents called it a “serious intelligence breach” but eventually the government paid Worthy $16,000 to settle the matter. “We never lost a wink of sleep over it,” Worthy told Goodman in a 1998 interview.

Born a doctor’s son in Boston, Worthy graduated from Boston Latin and then Bates College in Maine. He was a conscientious objector during WWII and then became a press aide to A. Philip Randolph, the civil rights giant. He joined the Freedom Riders even while reporting for the Afro during its glory days.

He traveled to the Soviet Union and, in 1956, was among the first Americans to go to China after the 1949 takeover by Communists. He spent 41 days there and interviewed Premier Zhou Enlai and U.S. prisoners in the Shanghai prison. The New York Times said Worthy’s report allowed the State Department to pinpoint their location for the first time.

Still, they revoked his passport, not returning it until 1968. Worthy traveled anyway.

He also wrote a book, “The Rape of Our Neighborhoods,” published in 1976. In it he examines the racial effects of large redevelopment projects.

If Worthy were getting his scoops in the 2000s, he would be a household name. But in Worthy’s day, journalism was not supposed to be about gaining fame. It was about exposing the facts someone wants to keep secret. Worthy did this as well as or better than anyone working in those decades, filing not only for the Afro but also CBS News, the Boston Globe, and the New York Post, among others. (The Post was liberal back then). Amy Goodman’s on-air obit is titled “The Most Important Journalist You’ve Never heard Of.” With the U.S. government cracking down on secret sharers like never before, Worthy’s legacy of courageous humility should inspire awe and imitation. 

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