William Worthy papers
Scope and Contents
The William Worthy papers span 1943 to 2007, documenting Worthy’s career as a journalist, activist, and teacher. Some of the collection remains unprocessed and therefore is not available for research. The processed portion of the collection contains correspondence, subject files, and other printed ephemera created by advocacy organizations Worthy worked with during his career.
- Creation: approximately 1940s - 2007
Conditions Governing Access
Three of the series in this collection are open for research use. Please contact Special Collections to request materials in the unprocessed series.
Conditions Governing Use
Single copies may be made for research purposes. Researchers are responsible for determining any copyright questions. It is not necessary to seek our permission as the owner of the physical work to publish or otherwise use public domain materials that we have made available for use, unless Johns Hopkins University holds the copyright.
Biographical / Historical
William Worthy was born in Boston, MA in 1921. His father, a medical doctor, was from Augusta, GA. Two of his sisters were musicians, one becoming a school teacher. Worthy graduated from Bates College in 1942 with a degree in sociology.
Worthy’s decision to become a journalist was made while he was still a college student. Shortly after graduating he became a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American, commonly know as the Afro. During his career with the Afro, Worthy wrote hundreds of columns on domestic and foreign issues. His political views were evident from the beginning. An African-American in what was then segregated “Jim Crow” America, Worthy’s views were often at odds with the United States government. Worthy registered as a conscientious objector during World War II, and developed close and lifelong relations with prominent members of the American Friendship Service Committee, Quaker organization working for peace and social justice.
In 1953 Worthy traveled to Indo-China, his first foray into foreign correspondence. When the United States began its military operations in Vietnam, Worthy was among a handful of United States journalists to express his opposition in print. In 1955 Worthy traveled to Moscow and received permission to use the facilities for Radio Moscow to broadcast from Moscow to CBS in the United States. He was the first reporter to do so since 1949.
Worthy was named a Neiman Fellow in the Class of 1957 by the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. He was named a Ford Foundation Fellow in 1959. He was also the first United States reporter to travel to and broadcast from China since 1949. Again, his broadcasts were carried by CBS. William R. Morrow, a nationally prominent newscaster for CBS was an admirer of Worthy’s work and became a lifelong friend. Worthy was among the first African-American broadcasters to appear on network television.
Upon his return from China, Worthy was seized and his passport confiscated by the United States State Department. Represented by famed left-wing attorney William Kunstler, Worthy lost a federal court case to reclaim his passport. Throughout the 1950s he continued to write for the Afro-American and many other publications, including the Progressive, the National Guardian, and the Village Voice.
In 1961 Worthy traveled to Cuba without a passport to cover the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro. He broadcasted from Cuba and filed many print media reports that were picked up by the Associated Press (AP), United Press International (UPI), and other wire services. As he was preparing to leave Cuba, the United States State Department refused his entry into the United States. Famed folksinger Phil Ochs wrote and recorded a song entitled “The Ballad of William Worthy” in response to this event.
When Worthy was allowed to return, he was arrested for traveling without a passport. Once again, represented by William Kunstler, Worthy challenged the United States decision. This time Worthy won. The United States Court of Appeals, 5th District, ruled that Worthy’s constitutional rights were violated by the State Department by arresting him for returning to the States without a passport. This ruling was upheld by the United States Supreme Court. It was a landmark ruling that, at that time, enabled all United States-based foreign correspondents to travel the world more freely. During the 1960s Worthy wrote extensively about the civil rights movement and participated in many demonstrations and marches. He also continued to travel and broadcast from abroad in North Vietnam, Cambodia, Algiers, Prague, Denmark, Grenada, Iraq, Johannesburg, Nigeria and other countries.
Worthy was disappointed by what he considered the civil rights movement’s failure to bring about change in a more timely manner. This led him to explore the more radical elements of the movement, including the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam.
He interviewed all sides of the movement, including its leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X. In the end Worthy was ambivalent at best about the more radical groups in the movement. As a pacifist, he was at odds with the violence of the Black Panthers and he couldn’t come to terms with the Nation of Islam’s concept of black nationalism. In the late 1960s Worthy organized a tenant rent strike against a Catholic hospital in New York City that wanted to tear down the apartment building in which he was living and turn it into a parking lot. The tenant strike was won; Worthy published a book about the episode entitled The Rape of Our Neighborhoods in 1976. Worthy’s experience also led to the founding of the Media Access Training and Assistance Unit (MATAU). MATAU’s purpose was to provide regular citizens with knowledge to use the news media to help them in issues such as health care and housing.
In the 1970s and part of the 1980s, Worthy continued to write for various publications, including Playboy, Ramparts, Esquire, and at least a dozen newspapers with both white and Black readership. He also continued to file stories from various nations around the world. Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff wrote in the December 2, 1981 edition of that publication that he had received a telegram from Worthy in October of that year stating, “Greetings from Tehran. Going to the war front among other places.” Hentoff goes on to write: “How the hell did he get into Iran, and once there, how is he apparently able to roam more widely than other reporters? Sheer stubbornness, I suppose. Bill is the stubbornest journalist I’ve ever known.” Shortly before that trip to Iran, Worthy had been appointed head of the African-American Journalism Department. at Boston University. He soon butted heads with the university’s more conservative president John Silber. Worthy’s decision side with SEIU members who were striking at the school contributed to his fractious relationship with university administration. This stance led to his departure.
Worthy’s travels to Iran (he went there three times) were primarily undertaken to report on the Islamic uprising following the Iranian student takeover of the United States embassy. Returning to the United States following one such trip, his luggage was confiscated by the State Department at Logan Airport in Boston. He won a Fourth Amendment suit against the United States to get his luggage back. In his luggage were classified secret CIA documents detailing the agency’s mishandling of the affair. The court also ordered the documents be returned to Worthy and the government was ordered to pay Worthy $16,000 for the trouble their actions created for Worthy. This ruling was also upheld by the Supreme Court. The CIA papers were later published in a 5-part series by the Washington Post.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Worthy continued to write for magazines and newspapers. He also wrote various booklets and pamphlets on a numbers of issues. He worked until 2005 when he stepped down from his position as special assistant to the Dean of Journalism at Howard University. He was 82 years old at that time.
Worthy died on May 4, 2014.
18.75 Cubic Feet (34 record center cartons. What is represented is the extent of the processed portion of this collection. Other parts of the collection remain unprocessed.)
Language of Materials
William Worthy (July 7, 1921 – May 4, 2014) was an African American journalist and activist. The collection includes the following topics and genres: correspondence, biographical information, writings, newspaper clippings, advocacy, teaching (including his tenure at Boston University), travel (specifically Cuba, the USSR, China and Iran), notes, files, and printed matter.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
The collection was purchased from William Worthy’s guardian in 2009.
Portions of this collection were processed by Ye Ji Choi, Valerie Addonizio, and Jordon Steele in March 2019. Series 1 and 2 were processed by Kristen Diehl in 2021.
- Robinson, Robert, 1906-1994 (Person)
- King, Mel, 1928- (Person)
- American Friends Service Committee. New England Regional Office (Organization)
- National Action/Research on the Military-Industrial Complex (Organization)
- American Friends Service Committee. Peace Education Division (Organization)
- Maysles, Albert, 1926-2015 (Person)
- Maysles, David, 1931-1987 (Person)
- Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (Organization)
- Hiebert, Deirdre (Person)
- Goodman, Randy (Person)
- Randolph, A. Philip (Asa Philip), 1889-1979 (Person)
- Newsom, Moses J. (Person)
- Murphy, Carl (Person)
- Boggs, Grace Lee (Person)
- Sostre, Martin, 1923-2015 (Person)
- Mackay, C.W. (Person)
- Guide to the William Worthy papers
- Kristen Diehl, Margaret Burri, Ye Ji Choi, Valerie Addonizio, Jordon Steele
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Language of description note
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