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William Worthy Jr., a bold Black journalist dead at 92

Herb Boyd | 5/29/2014, 2:12 p.m.

At a time when journalists were forbidden to travel to China, Cuba and the Soviet Union, William Worthy Jr. defied the U.S. State Department, grabbed his trusty typewriter and embarked on journeys to report the unreportable, interviewing several prominent Communist leaders. An icon for journalists on the left, particularly during the Cold War era, Worthy, 92, died on Sunday, May 4 in Brewster, Mass. His death, according to the website of Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, where he was a fellow in 1956-57, was from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

In 1963 at King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit, when Malcolm X delivered his famous “Message to the Grassroots” speech, he shared the dais with the Rev. Albert Cleage and Worthy. Much of the gist of Malcolm’s speech could have been gleaned from the stories filed by Worthy, particularly those that occurred in the Baltimore Afro-American, where he worked from 1953 to 1980. Worthy was one of the few journalists that Malcolm respected.

Among journalists during the period of McCarthy witch hunts and the ravages of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, Worthy’s courage was exceptional. He attached his name to many unpopular causes of the day, including the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which attracted a coterie of notables—James Baldwin, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Richard Gibson, Allen Ginsberg, John Henrik Clarke and Robert Williams.

Even when Pultizer Prize-winning author and historian Arthur Schlesinger tried to coax Malcolm X to denounce Worthy, Malcolm resisted, insisting that an article Worthy had written was not an attack on the Nation of Islam but on the negative conditions that gave rise to the Nation. Once, according to historian Gerald Horne in his book “Race Woman”, a biography of Shirley Graham Du Bois, Worthy sought Du Bois’ widow to help him secure an interview with Kwame Nkrumah during his ill-fated journey to Vietnam, but she refused. That he would seek her help and have her refuse him seems out of character for both, though Worthy never let a no stop him.

The adventurous Worthy began life July 7, 1921, in Boston. As a product of a solid Black middle-class family (his father was a noted doctor) much was expected of him, and he got off to a good start as a student at Boston Latin School and later earned a degree from Bates College in Maine in 1942. During World War II, the first signs of the militancy that would characterize his life appeared when he refused military service as a conscientious objector, though, according to one obituary, he could have avoided service because of an ulcer and a subsequent 4-F classification.

After a brief tenure as a press aide for A. Philip Randolph, Worthy was hired at the Afro-American and this began his career as a reporter who was not afraid to be less than objective in his coverage and certainly not afraid of venturing where his friends reminded him, “fools rush in where wise men never go.”

Worthy was not foolish, just absolutely bold in pushing the journalistic envelope as far as it would go, especially if the mission was abroad and to forbidden territory.