Lovelace on William Worthy and the Historical Relationship between Civil Rights and Human Rights

By Lael Weinberger

Political Science and Law

In the latest issue of the Journal of American History, H. Timothy Lovelace (Indiana University—Bloomington) has an article, "William Worthy's Passport: Travel Restrictions and the Cold War Struggle for Civil and Human Rights." From the article:

Bill Worthy, then the former Neiman Fellow in journalism at Harvard University, former Ford Fellow in African Studies, and foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American, had a long history of defying international travel restrictions. In 1956 the South African government detained Worthy, an early antiapartheid activist, for attempting to enter that country without a valid visa. In the 1956–1957 period Worthy flouted the U.S. government's travel ban to Communist nations and spent forty-one days reporting in China, Hungary, and the Soviet Union. When Worthy refused to promise to follow the State Department's travel restrictions in the future, the State Department declined to grant him a passport. Worthy appealed the State Department's decision to deny renewal of his passport, but the department's actions were upheld in federal district court and the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.2

In April 1962 the forty-year-old globe-trotting journalist was again facing legal trouble. Worthy had voyaged to Cuba four times since the Fidel Castro–led revolution. His fourth visit to the tropical isle landed him before a federal court.

. . .

[T]hough Worthy has no biography and has attracted little scholarly attention, studying his life complicates conventional understandings of movement politics and relationships. . . . Moreover, this article adds new theoretical dimensions to the rich literature on black internationalism. It builds from my scholarship that examines the relationship between the U.S. civil rights movement and the development of international human rights law and norms during the height of the civil rights movement. Although the Cold War constrained the political and legal vocabularies of most civil rights activists in the early 1960s, this article examines a small group of black activists who remained keenly interested in the rapidly evolving international legal order. Well before Malcolm X's call in 1964 to “take the case of the black man in this country before the nations in the U.N. [United Nations],” activists such as Worthy rebelled against the era's anticommunism by making rights-based claims rooted in U.S. constitutional law and, more explosively, international human rights law and norms.


Lael Weinberger is a J.D./Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago's law school and history department. Follow him on Twitter @LaelWeinberger.