"It's consistent with the ideology of this country that William Worthy isn't a household name in America," Badi G. Foster, visiting associate professor of Afro-American Studies recently told his seminar on media and political development in Afro-American communities. However Worthy's recent book, The Rape of Our Neighborhoods, may finally cause America to take notice of the 56-year old journalist who terms his political philosophy, "Anti-Colonialist, Anti-Militarist, Anti-Imperialist."
Throw terms like those around and you are bound to lose a large segment of the American audience of the '50s and early '60s. Compound that with the way in which the black press is generally received by white America, and you get a clear picture of why nobody listened to Worthy in 1954 when he predicted America's tragic involvement in the Viet Nam war.
"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," recalls Worthy, who is currently director of the dual Master's Degree program in Jounalism and Afro-American Studies at Boston University. "The French were completely hopeless, and I could see America slowly getting sucked into the tragedy," he adds.
Upon returning from Vietnam Worthy wrote an article, "Our Disgrace in Indo-China," which appeared in the NAACP newspaper, The Crisis, just two months prior to the French collapse in 1954. "It was strictly a matter of writing what anybody with two eyes could see," says Worthy, "unless blinded by U.S. nationalism and blatant patriotism. America was doomed from the start."
Worthy's astute political prophesizing didn't stop there. In the fall of 1960 he filed an exclusive dispatch from Havana to his newspaper, Baltimore's Afro American. Worthy revealed that the Cuban government had knowledge of an impending invasion of their country that was being formulated in Florida and the Carribean. A deaf America ignored this report which foretold, months in advance, the inevitable failure of what has since become known as the "Bay of Pigs" fiasco.
Why did Worthy's diapatch go unnoticed? "There was irrationality on a mass scale at the time, with the government and press working overtime to foster a state of hysteria over Cuab's revolution," Worthy says. He adds that nobody is going to listen to practical, common sense reporting in such an environment.
"The problem with America is that it gets caught up and entangled in its self-righteous rhetoric and desperately tries to hold onto it at any cost," the crew-cut scholar asserts.
But there is no bitterness in Worthy's voice, no haughty or arrogant satisfaction that time proved him correct; rather, there is an underlying sense of sorrow over the actions and policies of an American homeland he has difficulty identifying with after his persecution and prosecution by its federal government in the 1960s.
Worthy was born in Boston in the 1920s, the son of a doctor. During Worthy's formative years, his parents actively participated in the NAACP's struggle against segregation. A product of an intellectual family environment. Worthy was admitted to Boston Latin ("very rigid discipline but I learned a great deal") before matriculating at Bates College in Maine ("I considered Harvard, but wanted a small school away from home.")
A sociology major at Bates, Worthy became an admirer of Norman Thomas, a socialist leader and perennial presidential candidate, joined the American Civil Liberties Union, edited the school newspaper, and refused to join the military during World War II, claiming conscientious objector status on the basis of his "absolute pacificism."
Upon his graduation, Worthy went to work for A. Philip Randolph as a media assistant. He also began writing for the Afro-American as the paper's foreign correspondent, working concurrently as a stringer for CBS News. During a 1956 swing through Africa, Worthy persuaded a Pan American Airways official to let him board a plane bound for South Africa, even though he lacked a visa. Before his deportation 36 hours later by a bewildered racist government that didn't know how to handle a black American journalist, Worthy managed to file several stories about the country but they were somewhat overshadowed by his bold act in defiance of apartheid.
Worthy returned to Boston in 1957 and attended Harvard as a Neiman Fellow, but he continued his drive to gain access to restricted countries. While he was at Harvard, a Western Union cablegram informed him that the Communist Chinese government had approved his visa application to visit Peking. He left immediately, without receiving the required State Department validation whose China policy played on the fears of uninformed Americans would never approe his trip. Worthy and two Look Magazine reporters spent 41 days in China, sending back daily reports to an enthralled public.
His return made national headlines and sparked a major press freedom court case when Worthy's passport was revoked. A three year contest for its reissuance, directed by attorney "William Kunstler of Chicago Seven fame, proved ultimately unsuccessful when the Supreme Court refused to review the case.
After the court battle and an equally extensive speaking tour across the country, Worthy traveled to Cuba without a passport. He was eventually indicted and convicte under the McCarran Immigration Act for illegally reentering the country. His conviction was criticized as a direct restriction on the freedom of movement by the press.
Worthy launched another exhaustive appeals campaign because he never wanted the "government to mess with me again. I was out to defeat them in the circles of public opinion and the courts." He accomplished the latter when the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Act unconstitutional and overturned his conviction.
His passport was quietly restored to him in 1968, eleven years after his trip to China. Today, ironically, his program at B.U.is funded by a federal grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Worthy is not very optimistic about today's world. "I think America is out of touch with deprived people in emotional, physical, and psychological senses. Eventually these people will insist that their needs be met, which will no doubt lead to violence. I have no faith in an economic system based on individual selfishness and stomping on people in order to get ahead,' he says.
Given the complexity of his career, one wonders why Worthy never entered the political arena. He says he would have to deeply analyze himself for a complete answer, but he says that he never wanted to be overwhelmed by a particular political movement. Instead, journalism and academia became his conduits for change. With the publication of The Rape Of Our Neighborhoods, perhaps America will start responding to Worthy's prose. If they do they might discover the truth in the words of Kenneth B. Clark: "The Bill Worthys of our society provide the moral fuel necessary to prevent the flickering conscience of our society from going out."