After graduating from high school, Jack Nelson talked his way into a cub reporter's job at the Daily Herald in Biloxi, Miss., and quickly earned the nickname "Scoop.'' It was the beginning of a 55-year newspaper career that made him one of the most respected and influential reporters of his generation. He learned early on never to trust the official version of anything. His journalistic signature was hard reporting and no-baloney questioning, and along the way he riled everyone from Southern sheriffs to the head of the FBI, from George Wallace to Richard Nixon.
After Biloxi, he made his mark at the Atlanta Constitution, where he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1960 for exposing horrific conditions inside Georgia's state mental hospital, where 48 doctors (not one of them a psychiatrist) were supposed to care for more than 12,000 patients. He found doctors showing up drunk and nurses doing hip-nailing surgery.
In 1964 he joined the Los Angeles Times as its Atlanta-based reporter and quickly distinguished himself covering the civil rights movement. He went on to serve as the paper's Washington bureau chief for 20 years, and although he broke a major Watergate story, among other Washington exclusives, he was proudest of his reporting on civil rights.
The memoirs of too many journalists, including television news celebrities, ask more of readers than they give. Scoop is a notable exception. "There are too many people with too few years, too few experiences, and too little to say taking too much time glorifying their fifteen minutes of fame,'' writes Hank Klibanoff in his introduction. (Klibanoff co-authored, with Gene Roberts, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation.) "But there are others whose memoirs capture the meaning and reveal the importance not merely of a life, but of a time. This is one of those memoirs, and it's one that is particularly valuable to have now.''
In Nelson's case, the time was the 1960s, when the Southern civil rights uprising was unfolding as the most important domestic story of the last century. Nelson came to the story late, but he soon moved to the front ranks of a small cadre of reporters who kept the struggle for civil rights on the front page of the nation's leading newspapers. What set Nelson apart from other reporters was his use of well-honed investigative skills to do breakthrough reporting beyond the daily coverage.
Among his scoops:
In 1965, Viola Liuzzo, a white homemaker from Detroit, was killed by gunfire from a passing car in Alabama as she and another civil rights activist drove from Selma to Montgomery. When four Ku Klux Klansmen were arrested the next day, Nelson sensed that something was missing from the official account. Within days, he reported that an undercover FBI informer was in the car from which the shots were fired.
In 1968, three black students were killed and 27 others wounded when state police opened fire on student protestors at all-black South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. State troopers claimed the students charged them hurling rocks and bottles, but students insisted they were running away when the shooting began, and the evidence supported them. Nelson got to the truth of the matter by going to the local hospital and asking to see the victims' medical records. He introduced himself as "Nelson, from the Atlanta bureau.'' The doctor assumed he was with the FBI and turned over the records.
"It was eye-popping,'' Nelson told the New York Times before his death. "They were shot in the soles of their feet, in the back of the head. Even today, if you ask somebody about the Orangeburg Massacre, hardly anybody has a clue. But if you ask about Kent State, where it was white people, everybody knows about it.''
Perhaps the most bizarre story Nelson uncovered was a 1970 entrapment conspiracy involving the FBI and police in Meridian, Miss., to lure two Klansmen into a plot to bomb the home of a Jewish businessman. Using money from members of the Jewish community to bait the trap, the plan was to arrest, or kill, the Klansmen before they could set off a bomb. Only one of the Klansmen showed up, accompanied by his girlfriend, a local schoolteacher. Both died in a shootout with police. Despite an attempt to cover up the real story, Nelson cracked the case.
Nelson's relentless pursuit of the FBI's questionable tactics and abuse of power landed him at the top of J. Edgar Hoover's enemies list, and the late FBI director waged a smear campaign against Nelson and tried to get him fired.
When he died in 2009, Nelson was two chapters short of completing the first draft of his memoir. Fortunately, his wife, Barbara Matusow, an accomplished journalist in her own right, was committed to finishing the book. She plunged into boxes of disorganized documents, filled holes in the manuscript with her own reporting and completed a polished book that reminds us of the difference ferocious but fair journalism can make.
A personal disclosure is in order: I knew Jack Nelson as a friend for more than 40 years. His work speaks for itself and needs no embellishment or exaggeration. Scoop stands as a valuable contribution to understanding the role played by courageous journalists in not only covering but shaping the civil rights story during a long night of terror in Old Dixie.
Phil Gailey retired as editor of editorials of the Tampa Bay Times in 2008.