As a reporter in the late 1950s and early ’60s, William Worthy interviewed a constellation of Communist leaders in their homelands: Nikita Khrushchev in the Soviet Union, Chou En-lai in China, Fidel Castro in Cuba.
When his reporting defied US rules prohibiting visits to foreign foes, though, the Boston-born journalist became part of the news he covered. On Christmas Eve 1956, he slipped into China and broadcast reports for CBS. Upon returning to his Nieman fellowship studies at Harvard, the government refused to renew his passport unless he constrained his travel, and he challenged the State Department ruling all the way to the US Supreme Court.
Mr. Worthy, who was 92 when he died Sunday evening in the Epoch nursing home in Brewster, lost that legal battle and did not get a passport for about a decade. But he prevailed in skirmishes with the federal government over subsequent reporting trips. In the process, he set a constitutional precedent in passport law and inspired a protest song, “The Ballad of William Worthy,” which folk singer Phil Ochs recorded on his 1964 debut album “All the News That’s Fit to Sing”:
William Worthy isn’t worthy to enter our door,
Went down to Cuba, he’s not American any more,
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.’
The song chronicled Mr. Worthy’s decision to travel, absent a passport, to report in Cuba. At trip’s end he was arrested and convicted of entering the United States without a passport.
“According to top civil liberties attorneys in this country, on April 24, 1962, I became the first person ever to be indicted for coming home,” he wrote in The Catholic Worker newspaper that year.
This time Mr. Worthy persuaded a federal appeals court to declare the law unconstitutional and overturn his conviction. “I was out to defeat them in the circles of public opinion and the courts,” he recalled in a 1977 interview with The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper.
Legendary civil rights lawyer William Kunstler jump-started his own career by representing Mr. Worthy in the China and Cuba court battles.
“This was the first time I had ever invalidated a statute,” Kunstler later wrote about the Cuba case, adding: “I had changed the law! I had made a contribution! I felt an enormous thrill and a desire for more of the same.”
During about 40 years as a journalist, Mr. Worthy wrote perceptively and with sweeping historical context about race, civil rights, black militants, student protests, and the anti-Vietnam War movement, interviewing the likes of Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Yet by 2008, his role as groundbreaking journalist had all but faded from view when the Nieman Foundation presented Mr. Worthy the Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism.
“Throughout his life in journalism, Bill Worthy demonstrated a remarkable spirit of courage and independence in his determination to inform readers about places our government wanted to keep hidden from public view,” Robert Giles, then the Nieman curator, said in 2008.
The Nieman award arrived when Mr. Worthy was 86 and in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Of course, he was African-American, and my feeling always was that if he had been a white journalist, he’d be much better known,” said Michael Lindsey, a retired journalist and longtime friend who co-taught a course with Mr. Worthy in the 1980s at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “He had that black journalist tag put on him, but Bill was a journalist that white and black readers could learn a lot from.”
William Worthy Jr. was one of four children, and the only son, born to Dr. William Worthy, a physician, and the former Mabel Posey.
Mr. Worthy’s parents were from the South, and the family lived in Boston’s South End. Growing up, he studied piano and clarinet but wrote in the Globe in 1968 that “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 — from age 3 on. ‘The problem’ was discussed at the dinner table. More importantly, it was all around us.”
In another 1968 essay for the Globe, “From Black Brahmins to Black Power,” he wrote about the “winds of change that have shaped and are shaping Boston’s troubled racial scene.”
In a concluding paragraph that anticipated shifting demographics in Boston and elsewhere, he said he hoped his writing showed “that all the Latin in Latin School, all the gentility in cultured Boston, all the pro-American gods in a white Christian missionary heaven cannot stop the relentless flow of black-yellow-brown history the world over.”
Mr. Worthy graduated from Boston Latin School, was awarded a Burroughs Newsboys’ Foundation scholarship, and received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Bates College in Maine.
He worked as a CBS News correspondent and a reporter for The Afro-American newspaper in Baltimore.
In the mid-1950s, Soviet officials allowed him to use Radio Moscow facilities to broadcast news reports directly to the United States, and at one Kremlin reception, the Globe reported, Mr. Worthy “was singled out by Nikita S. Khrushchev and told to dance with a Russian girl.”
Returning to Boston, Mr. Worthy joined a class of Nieman fellows that included future New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, who months later waited at Logan International Airport to welcome Mr. Worthy home from his rule-breaking trip to China.
Years later, Mr. Worthy’s experiences living in New York City prompted his book “The Rape of Our Neighborhoods,” which examined what he called “unneighborly institutions.” Like corporations, he argued, nonprofits such as churches, hospitals, and universities often expand at the expense of neighborhoods in which those with limited resources are pushed aside, losing their homes.
At the end of the 1970s, he taught at Boston University but was ousted after tangling with the administration when John Silber was president. He later taught at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and also served on the board of directors of the National Whistleblowers Center.
David Colapinto, the organization’s general counsel, called Mr. Worthy “a great strategist” and mentor who provided helpful advice on cases the nonprofit handled.
A service will be announced for Mr. Worthy, whose only immediate survivor is his older sister Ruth, of Washington, D.C.
In the early 1980s, Mr. Worthy again took on the US government. During a reporting trip to Tehran, he and other journalists were given copies of US documents seized in the Iranian revolution, which US authorities confiscated when they returned to Logan Airport.
After a legal battle, the Reagan administration paid $16,000 in damages in 1982 to Mr. Worthy, Randy Goodman, and Teresa Taylor, and the US Justice Department agreed to destroy fingerprints and investigative records.
“Bill’s primary trait was his integrity,” Lindsey said. “A lot of people thought he was stubborn because he wouldn’t move on any moral issues, but the thing about Bill is that he never really gave up. He got his teeth into something and he went to the end of it.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.