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International Socialist Review, Fall 1962


William Worthy

Africa, Truth and the Right to Travel


From International Socialist Review, Vol.23 No.4, Fall 1962, pp.116-118.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


A courageous newspaperman warns his countrymen of the government and press conspiracy to withhold the truth

These are excerpts of remarks by William Worthy, foreign correspondent, Baltimore Afro-American, at the annual conference of the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association, June 23, 1962 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Mr. Worthy was invited to discuss his recent indictment for re-entering the US (his native country) on October 10, 1961 “without bearing a valid passport,” and also to discuss ways of improving African news coverage. Displayed in the hall were parts of a US-supplied Napalm bomb and photographs from Angola brought back to this country by George M. Houser, executive secretary of the American Committee on Africa.

The man responsible for the Worthy indictment, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, addressed the conference on the previous evening.

* * *

IN the October 1961 issue of Nieman Reports, published at Harvard University, Robert Sollen, wire editor on a California daily, wrote a devastating critique entitled Wire Service Nationalism and Its Consequences. He amply documented his thesis of a sadly misled, misguided American public by quoting misleading and distorted wire-service dispatches from all areas of the globe.

Until the nationalism and the quasi-official party line disappear from the daily output of the mass media – and all signs indicate the distortions get more blatant rather than diminish – the American people will remain out of touch with the realities of life in Africa, Asia, and above all, Latin America.

In a column 13 months ago Walter Lippmann referred to the distressingly low level of American thinking on world affairs. Needless to say, his criticism is an indictment not only of the US press, but also of leadership in our government, leadership in our educational system and leadership in the pulpit. Writing in the Boston Globe on May 18, 1961, Lippmann declared: “Our moral and intellectual unpreparedness for the reality of things is causing widespread demoralization among us ...”

To illustrate my point, and the point Lippmann seems to be making, let me use the current Portuguese war of extermination in Angola as an example. There have been passing references in the press to Portugal’s use of US arms and planes to wipe out villages and to slaughter women and children, in a cruel and of course futile effort to crush the Angolese fight for freedom. The State Department, amidst denials, has nevertheless virtually admitted that such arms, supplied to Portugal through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), are being so used.

But neither our double-talking government spokesmen nor the pious lovers of freedom who write the daily editorials about “the free world” have found the moral courage to place the blame where it belongs: first and foremost on the Kennedy administration and the government of the United States. After all, the issue is not really very important. It is only black freedom fighters – “semi-savages, you know” – who are dying from these Portuguese-NATO-United States aerial attacks. Tears are shed for freedom fighters only if it is Hungarians or East German Nordics who are being shot down. Indeed, usually our mass media refer to the Angolans and the Moslems in Algeria not as freedom fighters but as “terrorists.”

Twenty-seven years ago there was a wave of revulsion around the world when the Italians were slaughtering Ethiopians from the air in that barbarous imperialistic war of conquest. Our press reported that wave of revulsion and our editorial writers weren’t tongue-tied then because in 1935 the Italians weren’t on our side. But in 1962, if you read the US press from day to day – from the New York Times on down to the worst of the Hearst publications – you would never learn or dream that we appear to mankind to be just as barbarous, just as cruel, more cynically and hypocritically imperialistic for our help to the French in Algeria and Indo-China and our help to the Portuguese in Angola.

Naturally, the mass media have a convenient rationalization: “We can’t risk antagonizing or losing France and Portugal as NATO allies.” Africans denounce this as the thinking of imperialists. To Africans still living under the European whip the word “imperialist” is a harsh reality and not just a Moscow propaganda term. To Africans, this is thinking to be expected of the leader of NATO, which Colonel Nasser has branded “an alliance of enslavement.”

Among the photographs that George Houser of the American Committee on Africa brought back from Angola this year is one here in my folder that shows Angolan kids in a village receiving first aid medical treatment after one of those terrifying Portuguese air raids. From the standpoint of neglected news stories maybe I can show you how intellectually unprepared this country is to understand anti-colonial movements by quoting from a 1939 book by Pierre van Paassen, Days of Our Years. You should get the book out of the library and read pages 340 to 343 before the rapidly growing strength of the anti-colonial world overwhelms the West.

“On the 30th of January (1936), the town of Kobbo (Ethiopia) ... was subjected to an aerial bombardment ... Chunks of human flesh were quivering on the branches of the trees ... Mules and horses were pawing in their own entrails ... The whitewashed church was bespattered with blood and brains ... Men were running about ‘howling with insanity, their eyes protruding from their sockets ... One woman was sitting against a wall trying to push her bleeding intestines back into her abdomen ... A man lay near by, digging his teeth and his fingers into the ground ... A child sat on a doorstep whimperingly holding up the bleeding stumps of its arms to a dead woman whose face was missing ...

“... Count Ciano, I learned later, was handing out medals to the flyers of the Disparata squadron in the salon of the military club of Asmara. It was one of the bombs Mussolini’s son hurled that day on an Ethiopian cavalry squad that was later described in the boy’s book as having had the effect of a ‘sudden blossoming of red roses.’”

Before I quote further from van Paassen’s book, let me again prod your conscience by reminding you that today, June 23, 1962, our United States arms are enabling the fascist Salazar dictatorship in Portugal to carry out in Angola a repeat performance of events in Ethiopia in 1935 and 1936. Tens of thousands of Angolans have been killed since March 1961. That unforgettable passage about chunks of black human flesh quivering on tree branches helped to convert a man named Malcolm Little into a Black Muslim. A decade ago he was serving a term for burglary in a Massachusetts prison. He once told me that when he read that chapter in the prison library, his eyes were opened for the first time to the full dimensions of white Western “Christian” atrocities. Today that man is world famous as Minister Malcolm X.

Further on van Paassen wrote:

“We found Korissa in an incredible state of confusion. The Italians had bombed it into ruins, and the victims of those raids lay in piles along the main streets. At every step I was surrounded by women and children who knelt and stretched out their hands imploringly for help. They took me for a foreign medical man or missionary. That they did not kill me – a white brother of the poison-spreading Italians – showed the innate goodness of these people. Had I been an Ethiopian, I think I would have smashed in the head of the first white man to have come within my reach ...

“As a white man, I was filled with shame and for the first time I understood what Julian meant that day when, seeing the Christian mob attack with axes and then befoul the priceless statues of Praxiteles in the streets of Antioch, he remarked to a companion: ‘Does it not fill you with loathing to know yourself of the same blood as these barbarians?’”

BASICALLY, our coverage of news from Angola, from the stirring interior of Mozambique, from the dirty war in South Vietnam, from the invasion site on the coast of Cuba, from all of the colonial areas is not going to improve until non-ambitious, human-minded reporters with the discernment and the empathy of a Pierre van Paassen are sent out on the important assignments. And the ultimate necessity for improving news coverage is for you, the publishers, to have the guts to resist the pressures we all know about and to print what is really going on.

Again I must say: Our daily papers, our giant weekly news magazines, our radio and television networks, with noble exceptions, are not going to report the anguish of an Africa struggling to rid itself of American-supported colonialism, American-supported neo-colonialism, American-supported colonial wars. An exception worth noting is the excellent and revealing dispatches from South Vietnam that have been appearing in the New York Times. Either the Negro press will rise to the great historic need and will report the struggle for African, Asian and Latin American freedom – perceptively, sympathetically, courageously – or the American people will go down the drain of history after dwelling a little while longer in ignorance, in fictitious bliss, in a cauldron of daily lies and misinterpretation unequalled in the history of the printed word.

One reason that the US mass media will not, and psychologically cannot, report the hard facts, the bitter truth from Africa is that the owners of the mass media have too much of a stake in the status quo, emotionally, financially, socially. Tragically, the emotional stake trickles down to their not well paid employees. For their own good and for the good of the public, white reporters, in Washington and in foreign capitals, are much too close to our officials and to American ambassadors. The First Amendment does not say that the press is supposed to be an instrument of national policy. A famous Washington correspondent told my class of Nieman Fellows at Harvard that the private background dinner has a pervasively pernicious influence, particularly on news of foreign affairs. He told us that the average Washington correspondent will almost sell his soul just to be able to boast: “I dined with the Secretary of State last night.”

I supposed that dining en masse with the Attorney General at a public banquet is not necessarily harmful or corrupting, provided the intimacy goes no further than that. But let’s keep in mind that if US support of colonialism is to be brought to an end, we must relentlessly keep the news spotlight on the crucial decisions of the policymakers, and that includes the President’s brother. In a poorly reported speech at the Overseas Press Club at the time of Lumumba’s death, Edward Kennedy admitted that genuine African leaders regarded Tshombe, Mobutu and Kasavutau as “creatures of the American Central Intelligence Agency.” In other words, the same old Uncle Tom diplomacy that the mass media never properly interprets. On January 12, 1961, on page 8, the respected Manchester Guardian Weekly stated that today the world regards not England nor the Soviet Union as the arch imperialist, but rather the United States of America.

IN a personal vein, may I add that our best efforts to put the American people in touch with reality can be thwarted at any moment by the imposition of arbitrary State Department travel bans. Very soon, all of the southern belt of Africa will explode into one giant “disturbed area.” The fact that African nationalists are not racists, as Pierre van Paassen found out in those bombed-out villages, will not deter this government of ours from declaring that area out of bounds, on the specious grounds of “safety” and “not in the best interests of the United States.”

The State Department and the Justice Department have disarmed the people and the press by having gotten away with their bans on travel to China, Cuba and other countries they don’t like. The precedent for flimsy justification of travel controls has been fairly well established by the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. In the future, it will be distressingly simple for our officials to tell all reporters, or just Negro reporters, or just any reporter uninterested in protecting the huge American investments in southern Africa, to stay out of that area. Travel control is thought control and intellectual control, and no one knows and appreciates that more than do the policymakers who, without precedent in America’s peacetime history, are now routinely telling citizens where they can and cannot go. Travel control is also a mighty weapon for depriving a newsman of a living.

It may interest you to know that the very concept of the right to travel got its first strong impetus on the medieval feudal estates. The feudal barons kept their serfs on the estates at all times. In times of drought or of other adverse conditions, the serfs were not permitted to travel elsewhere to seek work and means of survival. The concept of the right to travel sprang from the necessity of earning a living. As someone said to me yesterday, it is important to dispel the superficial notion that the right to travel is nothing more than the right to go away on a pleasant vacation.

In this light, I have welcomed the moral support and the frontpage coverage that the Negro press has given to my recent indictment. It has put the daily press to shame. The dailies realize that the Justice Department has made a monumental blunder and, for the most part, they seem to be trying to cover up for the government. But the mass media will be compelled, by the type of campaign we have planned, to pay attention to my case. Before this fight is over, domestic and worldwide publicity is going to wither the legal morons who dreamed up the idea of silencing me by instituting a criminal prosecution so absurd that even shoeshine boys, I have found, clearly see through it.

At the appropriate time I will welcome your legal support in the form of amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs. Freedom of the press is at stake, and this makes my fight your fight in a direct and immediate sense. Another close-to-your-heart issue is the bold, brazen racial discrimination on the part of the federal government in prosecuting me and only me, while doing nothing to any of the white citizens who have committed the very same “crime” of coming home without a passport.

I am more than grateful, I was delighted to receive the invitation to speak to you today, following last night’s appearance here by the Attorney General of the United States, my adversary in court. I got the message. Mr. Kennedy, you may be certain, got the message. And what is so important when this conference is reported in the press of Africa together with Mr. Kennedy’s insistence this week that I stand trial in Miami at the risk of physical violence, our brothers in Africa will also get the message. They will applaud and bless you.

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