Pioneering Roxbury journalist Bill Worthy remembered
By the time Bill Worthy arrived on location in North Carolina for a 1994 documentary shoot about one of the many extraordinary travels in his long life, he already had his own theme song.
“‘Worthy isn’t worthy to come to our shores’ — how does that thing go?” his friend and fellow traveler Ernest Bromley greeted him during a reunion tour of the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, the first Freedom Ride.
Worthy chuckled, and ever the meticulous journalist, recited the exact lyrics (“…Worthy isn’t worthy to enter our door …”) of the Phil Ochs ballad about the U.S. government’s case against him for traveling from Cuba without a passport in 1961.
Those were just two of the many amazing journeys of Worthy, born in Roxbury on July 7, 1921.
The travels — to places like wartime North Vietnam, Iran during the hostage crisis, and with an interracial group in the American South during segregation, frequently got him into trouble, as he very well knew they would.
“He was a fearless journalist and a fearless person,” fellow journalist and Roxbury native Sarah-Ann Shaw said this week after hearing of his death on Cape Cod on May 4.
“He stood up for what was right. He really didn’t care who got angry. If he knew that this was what was true, he was going to pursue it to the end of the Earth.”
The son of William Worthy Sr., a pioneering black obstetrician, the younger Worthy graduated from Boston Latin School and Bates College in Maine and went on to hold many first-and-only black distinctions, including as an early CBS News correspondent and Nieman fellow at Harvard in the 1950s.
During that time, he defied a U.S. travel ban to become one of the first American journalists to visit mainland China since the 1949 communist takeover.
“I want to present as much factual material as possible, with comment, and to let my impressions, some of which are contradictory, emerge in that way,” he wrote of the trip in the summer 1957 Nieman Reports.
Though his political views often clashed with U.S. policy, that didn’t make him a shill for America’s adversaries. Writing of China’s “assembly-line production of lecturers” in political indoctrination courses, he noted that “every dictatorship seems to feel called upon to regulate and spy upon the people’s sex life,” observing: “Under the Communists, China has become a puritanical country, and the Chinese equivalents of Harvard’s parietal rules (about dorm visits by members of the opposite sex) are very strict.”
Worthy’s objectivity aside, the State Department denied to renew his passport on his return, leading to his visit to Cuba in 1961 without one. On his return, he was convicted of illegally reentering the U.S., sparking the Ochs song and making him a cause célèbre. The conviction was later overturned.
He made numerous trips to other political hotspots, including North Vietnam, before visiting Iran for CBS News during the hostage crisis. Earning exclusive access with the students who took over the American embassy in Tehran, he and two reporting colleagues returned with books, widely available in that country, compiled from shredded U.S. documents. Deemed by the State Department to be illegally obtained classified documents, the books were confiscated on their return. Through his contacts, however, Worthy got them published in the Washington Post and elsewhere, rendering moot any claim they were propriety material.
He also had the foresight to get evidence in the form of a receipt when buying the books, recalled Randy Goodman of Cambridge, a photographer on the trip who made many subsequent travels with Worthy.
“Had Bill not made the decision that we needed to protect ourselves — made from very many years of experience — we could have been in a very difficult situation,” she said.
By then, Worthy had long been used to being part of news stories. In 1947, more as an activist than journalist, he joined a group of 16 black and white men traveling side-by-side on buses and trains in the South. Their intent was to force the states to abide by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Irene Morgan v. Virginia, which had outlawed segregation in interstate transportation the year before.
“He was an asset on the trip. He had plenty of courage. He was ready to be out front,” George Houser, 97 and now the last known survivor of the Journey, said from Santa Rosa, Calif.
Committed to comporting themselves like gentlemen, none of the travelers had any idea what to expect. They experienced one brush with
violence in Chapel Hill, N.C., and endured multiple arrests for violating local segregation laws, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling. Three were sentenced to 30 days on a chain gang.
“That took a lot of courage in those days,” Houser said.
Nearly 50 years later, Worthy was at first reticent to join the reunion trip for a documentary I was producing about the journey, probably because — well, who was I and what exactly would my program say about it? Ever the careful journalist, he answered our interview questions guardedly, often quoting someone else instead of giving his own opinions (“Frederick the Great once said,” he began one comment.)
Still, he seemed to revel in rejoining his colleagues and, again the incurable journalist, spent much of his time interviewing them.
Shaw, who got to know Worthy at WBZ-TV, where she worked for more than three decades, called him a model for anyone aspiring to become a journalist today and said it was his nature to be careful.
“He had been burned, you know?” she said. “He made it clear that this was what he was thinking so that people then couldn’t tie him to the enemies of the country.”
“His mind was like a file cabinet. He could just reach into it and pull out something that was pertinent,” Shaw continued of his thorough research, though with less concern about his appearance presenting it. “He’d come on Channel 4 with a wool sweater and a not-too-fashionable tweed jacket. He was not a fashion plate. He didn’t care about presenting himself.”
What he did care about, said Goodman, was “people, and that it was important to understand what politics were doing, getting in the way of people’s lives.”
Former Banner managing editor Robin Washington of Duluth, Minn., produced the PBS documentary “You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow!” about the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, on which Worthy was a participant.