William Worthy, a Reporter Drawn to Forbidden Datelines, Dies at 92
William Worthy, a foreign correspondent who in the thick of the Cold War ventured where the United States did not want him to go — including the Soviet Union, China, Cuba — and became the subject of both a landmark federal case concerning travel rights and a ballad by the protest singer Phil Ochs, died on May 4 in Brewster, Mass. He was 92.
His death, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease, was announced on the website of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. Mr. Worthy was a Nieman Foundation fellow in the 1956-57 academic year.
A correspondent for The Afro-American of Baltimore, a weekly newspaper, from 1953 to 1980, Mr. Worthy also contributed freelance reports to CBS News, The New York Post and other publications. He became an international cause célèbre in the early 1960s when, returning from Cuba, he was found guilty of violating United States immigration law.
The son of a distinguished obstetrician, William Worthy Jr. was born in Boston on July 7, 1921.
“Despite the respect and certain privileges derived from membership in a professional ‘black bourgeoisie’ family, my sisters and I were clearly aware, as children, of our ‘inferior’ minority group status,” Mr. Worthy wrote in a 1968 article for The Boston Globe. “ ‘The problem’ was discussed at the dinner table. More importantly, it was all around us.”
After graduating from the Boston Latin School, Mr. Worthy earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Bates College in Lewiston, Me., in 1942. In World War II, though an ulcer would have let him be classified 4-F, he chose to become a conscientious objector.
Mr. Worthy began his career as a press aide for the civil rights leaderA. Philip Randolph. During his years at The Afro-American, he kept one foot in the realm of direct advocacy, joining Freedom Riders on their pilgrimages through the South and later becoming a close ally of Malcolm X.
As a journalist, Mr. Worthy quickly earned a reputation for venturing into forbidden places to report on the effects of war, revolution and colonialism. In 1955, he spent six weeks in Moscow, interviewing ordinary citizens and the future Soviet premier Nikita S. Khrushchev, who at the time was first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.
Toward the end of 1956, during his Nieman fellowship, Mr. Worthy, who had spent years petitioning the Chinese government for a visa, learned he had been granted one.
Defying a United States travel ban, he crossed into mainland Chinafrom Hong Kong. He was one of the first American journalists admitted there after the United States broke off relations after the 1949 Communist takeover.
He spent 41 days traveling the country, interviewing the premier, Zhou Enlai, as well as people in schools, factories and hospitals.
He also visited the Shanghai prison, where he interviewed American P.O.W.s captured during the Korean War. The United States knew the men were being held somewhere in China, but in several cases Mr. Worthy’s reports were the first to pinpoint their location.
fter returning to the United States in 1957, Mr. Worthy tried to renew his passport. The State Department refused.
In a statement, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles said, “It is evident from Mr. Worthy’s testimony that should his passport be renewed he would not feel obligated, under present world conditions, to restrict his travel abroad in any way.”
Indeed, Mr. Worthy felt no such obligation. In 1961, without a passport, he went to Cuba, debarking in Havana from a ship bound from the United States for Mexico. He interviewed Fidel Castro and filed articles about the country under Communism, with particular attention to race relations, which he judged far better than those in the United States.
Returning, he was arrested in Florida and indicted on a charge of entering the country illegally — that is, without a passport. (He had shown immigration officers his birth certificate as proof of citizenship.)
In 1962, in a nonjury trial in federal court in Miami — Mr. Worthy’s lawyers included William M. Kunstler — he was found guilty and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment plus nine months’ probation.
The case became a sensation. Rallies on Mr. Worthy’s behalf were held in cities around the world. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell petitioned the United States attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, in support of him.
Mr. Ochs wrote “The Ballad of William Worthy,” which includes these lines:
William Worthy isn’t worthy to enter our door.
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 1964, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned Mr. Worthy’s conviction, ruling that the lack of a passport was insufficient ground to bar a citizen from re-entering the country. Concurring in the opinion was Judge Griffin B. Bell, a future United States attorney general under President Jimmy Carter.
Mr. Worthy was not granted a new passport until 1968. Over the years, his other travels — with a passport or without — took him to North Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and Algeria.
In 1981, Mr. Worthy and two colleagues traveled to Iran to examine the effects of the Islamic revolution there. He bought a multivolume set of books said to be reprints of intelligence documents taken from the United States Embassy in Tehran after revolutionary militants seized it in 1979.
Though the books were readily available in Iran and were already circulating in Europe, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, deeming them classified, seized them on the journalists’ return to the United States.
Mr. Worthy was able to furnish a duplicate set to The Washington Post. In 1982, after authenticating them, The Post published a series, based partly on their contents, about United States intelligence operations in Iran.
The federal government agreed that year to pay $16,000 to settle a suit by Mr. Worthy and his colleagues over the seizure.
In later years, Mr. Worthy taught journalism at Boston University; the University of Massachusetts, Boston; Howard University; and elsewhere. In 2008, he received the Nieman Foundation’s Louis Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism.
His survivors include a sister, Ruth Worthy.
Mr. Worthy was the author of a book, “The Rape of Our Neighborhoods,” published in 1976.
In 1982, The Associated Press asked Mr. Worthy why he had brought the Iranian volumes into the United States. His response could well describe what propelled his entire career.
“Americans,” Mr. Worthy said, “have a right to know what’s going on in the world in their name.”
Correction: May 25, 2014
An obituary last Sunday about the reporter William Worthy misstated the position held by Nikita S. Khrushchev when Mr. Worthy interviewed him in Moscow in 1955. He was the first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party; he had not yet become premier.