At the top of great social movements, charismatic leaders spin out visions of things that just might be. Closer to the bottom, it’s journalists who sometimes force us to confront the way things are.
Jack Nelson was one of the best journalists of the last half of the 20th century because he held a mirror up to his fellow Southerners just when the civil rights movement needed him to, and showed them a reflection they could not abide.
“Scoop: The Evolution of a Southern Reporter” tells the story of Nelson’s progression from a kid with no particular consciousness about race into a crusader against inequality.
Nelson spent more than 35 years at the Los Angeles Times, rising to Washington Bureau chief, before retiring in 2001. He died in 2009, before he could finish this autobiography. But his wife, journalist Barbara Matusow, completed the final research and writing to bring the book to publication.
Though the most fulsome account of the media’s role in the equal rights struggle might be the Pulitzer-winning history “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation,” Nelson’s account delivers a more personal – and in several ways, compelling – viewpoint. The relentless reporter who faced down Klansmen and corrupt sheriffs was a grown-up version of the 15-year-old who, after being rousted and unfairly jailed by a cop, vowed he would never again allow the authorities to “subject me or anyone else to abuse, without being called to account.”
Nelson made good on that promise many times over, first rooting out government corruption in his native South, then turning to institutional racism before tearing off a meaningful hunk of the biggest scandal of his lifetime, Watergate.
Nelson began his career as a teenager at the Biloxi Daily Herald in Mississippi. At the Atlanta Constitution, he rankled the establishment by rooting out dirty cops who protected an illegal lottery operation and exposing a state college that won accreditation against the recommendation of a team of experts. Nelson obtained letters showing the college’s influential patrons included the Constitution’s editor-columnist, Ralph McGill.
The acclaimed McGill savaged Nelson’s reporting and tried to kill the story. But Nelson wouldn’t back down, and the story ran.
“Where the average person sees gray, I tend to see black and white,” Nelson writes. “Not being terribly introspective may help too. My stories would often cause anguish to others, but it’s not my nature to dwell on the consequences.”
Those consequences included regular threats and real violence. Nelson was punched by an angry doctor as he bored in on the ghastly conditions at Milledgeville State Mental Hospital in Georgia. Nelson’s exclusives on drug-addled doctors and substandard care brought him the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting.
Although he had positioned himself as a watchdog against government corruption, he somehow had placed state-sponsored racism in a different category. In “Scoop,” Nelson admits with some embarrassment how slow he was to focus his attention on discrimination.
But once on the story, he did not dither. Nelson had no time to dither when he moved to the Los Angeles Times in 1965. The historic march from Selma to Montgomery was on the near horizon. And the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign for economic justice had driven into the North.
When a carload of extremists shot a Northern woman, Viola Liuzzo, who came to support the historic Selma-to-Montgomery freedom march, authorities quickly nabbed some suspects. Too quickly, by Nelson’s reckoning. He prodded his sources and learned that an FBI informant had been riding in the car from which the fatal bullets were fired.
A sense of moment rings through in each of these episodes. Nelson sat at Mason Temple in Memphis on April 3, 1968, when King spoke publicly for the last time. The reporters and the crowd were filled with a sense of foreboding as King declared: “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” A night later, a sniper shot and killed the civil rights icon.
One of Nelson’s most important investigations came in Orangeburg, S.C., where in 1968 state troopers fired on a group of student protesters at the almost all-black state college. Nelson went to the local hospital administrator and demanded to see the medical records of the more than two dozen wounded and the three young men who were killed.
He identified himself as being “from the Atlanta Bureau.”
“He probably thought I was talking about the Atlanta office of the FBI,” Nelson writes of the hospital official, “and I didn’t disabuse him of that notion.” Records in hand, Nelson had another exclusive – showing that at least 16 of the students had been shot from behind.
At the time, the reality of equal rights must have seemed like a far-off dream.
But 40 years later, at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, black voters streamed into polling booths to vote for a young African-American for president. Jack Nelson could not be there, but surely would have been moved to see the long arc of history bend just a little toward justice.
Earthalee Brown, 85, voted for Barack Obama that primary day, then recalled the degradation growing up in segregated Orangeburg County and how different it would be to see an African- American sitting in the White House.
The old woman turned her palms toward heaven and smiled at the thought. “It’s going to feel,” she said, “like God is still on the throne.”