BY BRIAN WILLIAMS
Journalist William Worthy, who fought government persecution for traveling to Cuba and accurately reporting on the revolution’s gains for working people there, died May 4 at the age of 92. The fight to defend him was part of a radicalization of a generation of young people inspired by the 1959 Cuban Revolution and proletarian battle for Black rights in the U.S.
As a foreign correspondent for the weekly Baltimore Afro-American, Worthy traveled extensively abroad, on many occasions defying government travel restrictions. In the mid-1950s he went to Hungary and China. He reported first-hand on revolutionary developments from Cuba to North Vietnam, Algeria and Iran.
When he sought to renew his passport in 1957, the State Department refused on grounds that Worthy “would not feel obligated to restrict his travel abroad in any way.”
Worthy, who was African American, traveled to Cuba in July 1961, three months after Cuba’s revolutionary forces defeated the U.S.-organized mercenary invasion of the island at the Bay of Pigs. He interviewed Cuban President Fidel Castro and filed a number of articles reporting truthfully about steps the revolutionary government had taken to uproot racist discrimination there.
Three months later Worthy took a flight from Havana to Miami with a copy of his birth certificate. Six and a half months later on April 24, 1962, a Miami grand jury issued a criminal indictment of Worthy for entering the U.S. “without a valid United States passport,” a document the State Department continued to refuse to issue.
“No other U.S. citizens have ever been indicted under the 1952 McCarran Immigration and Nationality Act for having returned ‘illegally’ to their native country,” noted a May 7, 1962, article in the Militant, which reported extensively on his fight.
Worthy was arrested in New York and moved to Miami to stand trial. His defense attorney, William Kunstler, then filed motions for a change of venue to New York, arguing that a fair trial could not be obtained in Miami given the hostile atmosphere generated by rightist paramilitary Cuban exile groups there. The request was denied.
In a two-hour trial in August 1962, Worthy was convicted. The following month he was sentenced to three months in prison. The ruling was appealed.
The U.S. government targeted Worthy for his determination to get out the truth about the Cuban Revolution in face of Washington’s lies. In an October 1960 cabled dispatch from Havana, “I scooped the entire U.S. press on CIA preparations for the invasion of Cuba,” said Worthy in a statement after being convicted, the Militant reported at the time. “Subsequently, I repeatedly ridiculed the fantasy, nurtured by our press and government, that the Cuban people would rise up and embrace an invading force. Our law enforcement agencies promptly set out to ‘get’ and silence me.”
Rallies back Worthy’s fight
Once the indictment of Worthy was announced, a broad array of supporters of the right to travel and First Amendment rights joined protests demanding the charges be dropped.
“A carload of us from the Fair Play for Cuba Committee chapter at Carleton College in Minnesota drove up to the Twin Cities to demonstrate against the decision by the Anti-Defamation League to give President John F. Kennedy a ‘democracy legacy’ award,” Mary-Alice Waters, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party, said in a phone interview. “It was the first demonstration in the U.S. that I ever took part in. It was 20 degrees below zero and this was an important issue for us.”
“Worthy was a founder of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Taking a stand on Cuba and the Fair Play committee was a good indication of Worthy’s politics and how radical he was,” Waters said.
That same day a similar picket occurred in Chicago. At the action, “I was part of a delegation that went to talk to the Anti-Defamation League to oppose granting this award,” said Joel Britton of the Socialist Workers Party, who was then a student at Roosevelt University and a member of the Young Socialist Alliance.
“Actions like this weren’t big mass actions, but part of a deepening radicalization of our generation who identified with the Cuban Revolution and the struggle for Black rights in the U.S.” Waters said. “The impact of these things was a political education for our generation and gave us confidence that those forces were capable of making a revolution in the U.S. This affected us our entire lives.”
Several months earlier in June 1962, the Negro Newspapers Publishers Association, in a rebuff to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, invited Worthy to address its annual convention in Baltimore the day after Robert Kennedy was scheduled to speak.
Pickets defending the right to travel to Cuba were put up at a number of public events attended by the attorney general. On Oct. 28, 1962, during the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis, a picket line of some 200 marched in front of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York to protest the American Jewish Committee’s award to Robert Kennedy for “advancing human freedom.” Among signs being carried were: “Free Travel to Cuba” and “Free William Worthy.”
In the Harlem neighborhood of New York, two days before Worthy’s sentencing, “some 750 heard 20 leaders of the Negro community speak in his defense,” the Militant reported. Among the numerous supporters of the case were James Farmer, national director of CORE; Percy Sutton, president of the N.Y. NAACP; AFL-CIO Vice President A. Philip Randolph of the Sleeping Car Porters; Malcolm X; author James Baldwin; Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling; and the American Civil Liberties Union.
At a street rally in Harlem on June 1, 1963, Worthy raised the idea of organizing an independent Black political party. Later that year he collaborated with Rev. Albert Cleage Jr. and others in forming the Michigan Freedom Now Party, which ran candidates challenging the Democrats and Republicans in the 1964 elections.
In response to mounting protests, a federal appeals court in February 1964 overturned Worthy’s conviction and declared unconstitutional the federal law that prohibits a citizen from leaving or entering the country without a valid passport.
“A Salute to William Worthy,” headlined an editorial in the March 2, 1964, Militant. “When the Justice Department indicted Worthy it clearly did so because he had gone to Cuba in defiance of the travel ban and, on his return, insisted on telling the truth about the great progress of the Cuban revolution,” the editorial said. “But for one reason or another, the G-Men decided to skirt a court test of the travel ban at that point and indicted him instead on the seemingly incredible grounds of returning to his native land without a passport.
“By insisting on exercising his constitutional rights despite the threat of jail Worthy had added to everyone’s freedom.”
Vol. 78/No. 22, June 9, 2014