Scoop: The Evolution of a Southern Reporter

Edited by Barbara Matusow
Introduction by Hank Klibanoff
Epilogue by Richard T. Cooper
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    From a gullible cub reporter with theDaily Heraldin Biloxi and Gulfport, to the pugnacious Pulitzer Prize winner at theAtlanta Constitution, to the peerless beat reporter for theLos Angeles Timescovering civil rights in the South, Jack Nelson (1929-2009) was dedicated to exposing injustice and corruption wherever he found it. Whether it was the gruesome conditions at a twelve-thousand-bed mental hospital in Georgia or the cruelties of Jim Crow inequity, Nelson proved himself to be one of those rare reporters whose work affected and improved thousands of lives.

    His memories about difficult circumstances, contentious people, and calamitous events provide a unique window into some of the most momentous periods in southern and U.S. history. Wherever he landed, Nelson found the corruption others missed or disregarded. He found it in lawless Biloxi; he found it in buttoned-up corporate Atlanta; he found it in the college town of Athens, Georgia. Nelson turned his investigations of illegal gambling, liquor sales, prostitution, shakedowns, and corrupt cops into such a trademark that honest mayors and military commanders called on him to expose miscreants in their midst.Once he realized that segregation was another form of corruption, he became a premier reporter of the civil rights movement and its cast of characters, including Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, Alabama's Sheriff Jim Clarke, George Wallace, and others. He was, through his steely commitment to journalism, a chronicler of great events, a witness to news, a shaper and reshaper of viewpoints, and indeed one of the most important journalists of the twentieth century.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-066-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. ix-2)

    As a literary genre, the memoir has come under attack in the last couple of years, often justifiably. There are too many people with too few years, too few experiences, and too little to say taking too much of our time glorifying their fifteen minutes of fame—and every quarter-hour increment that came before and after.

    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.

    Jack Nelson’s story is, of course,...

    (pp. 3-6)

    Mother and i were standing in the yard when a black sedan pulled up in front of our house, a run-down, two-story rental in Biloxi, Mississippi. We moved there from Alabama during World War II, when my father was assigned to nearby Keesler Field. Out of the car stepped a big, burly man dressed in a dark suit and gray hat. It was one of those murderously hot, humid days in Biloxi, and the detective was sweating profusely. He tipped his hat to my mother, showed a badge, and introduced himself as a city detective. Could he talk with me...

  5. Chapter 2 BIRTH OF A SALESMAN
    (pp. 7-14)

    Had i not become a reporter I might have been a hell of a salesman. When I was a kid, people used to call me a hustler—someone who gets the job done with dispatch. I bustled around with boundless energy as a teenage reporter for theDaily Herald(now theSun Herald), but even before that, as a small boy, I scurried around selling newspapers and helping out at my father’s fruit stand. There’s no question in my mind that these experiences helped hone the skills I would later need as a reporter.

    My career as a child salesman...

  6. Chapter 3 BILOXI BOY
    (pp. 15-22)

    The attack on pearl harbor in December 1941 enraged my thirty-five-year-old father. Several months later, despite being the father of three minor children, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. He was assigned to Keesler Field, later named Keesler Air Force Base, for basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi. We moved with him and rented a small house in Biloxi in the old Seashore Methodist Campgrounds, about a block from the beach.

    When we arrived, Biloxi had a population of about fifteen thousand, not including the thousands of soldiers at Keesler Field. It was postcard pretty—a sleepy, sun-drenched resort with...

  7. Chapter 4 “SCOOP”
    (pp. 23-29)

    Working as a painter’s helper at Keesler Field, going ahead of the painter with a handkerchief wrapped around my face, brushing away dirt and cobwebs from under the eaves of barracks wasn’t exactly the job I was hoping to get after graduating from high school. But it paid thirty dollars a week and jobs were scarce in 1947. I grabbed it and held on to it for several months. Then, one day while thumbing through theDaily Heraldwant ads, I spotted one that read: “General assignment reporter wanted, knowledge of sports desired.” The mention of sports caught my eye...

  8. Chapter 5 SIN AND SALT WATER
    (pp. 30-36)

    In the late 1940s, race relations were ignored by theDaily Herald, which for that matter was true of most other newspapers in the South. About the only time a black person’s name appeared in the paper was when one was charged with a crime. As for me, I lacked any sensitivity on the subject and rarely gave the matter much thought, although I suppose I accepted separation of the races as a matter of course. Still, an experience I had a year or so after joining the paper jolted me. I was talking to a young desk clerk in...

    (pp. 37-40)

    I was not eager to go to the other side of the world to fight, so I joined the Mississippi National Guard along with my brother, Kenny, and my friend Al Rushing. I figured I could make a little extra money and perhaps stay out of Korea. We became members of Biloxi’s Battery C of the 115th Anti-Aircraft Gun Battalion.

    Because I was a reporter and could help with public relations and even write stories for theHeraldabout the National Guard, I was soon promoted to staff sergeant, a rank few of my colleagues ever attained. In fact my...

  10. Chapter 7 ATLANTA
    (pp. 41-51)

    For an ambitious reporter like me, going to work for theConstitutionseemed like a good fit, but I wanted certain assurances first. I flew to Atlanta to discuss the offer with Bill Fields, and told him I was willing to work long hours but that I also wanted to go to college. He said he understood but expressed doubts that my going to college would work well for theConstitution.

    “We’ll pay you eighty-five dollars a week if you don’t go to college because you’ll be available to us, if needed, twenty-four hours a day,” he said. “But we’ll...

  11. Chapter 8 BACK ON THE VICE BEAT
    (pp. 52-55)

    A few months after joining theConstitutionin 1953, I got an urgent telephone call that sent me off on a major investigation and one of my most harrowing experiences as a reporter. Brigadier General Richard Mayo, who had succeeded General Armstrong as commander of Camp Stewart, told me that gambling, drinking, and prostitution, under the protection of Liberty County officials, were victimizing soldiers and seriously hampering their training for combat duty in Korea.

    Most of the soldiers were young inductees who were lonely and easily led astray. Teenaged barmaids, many from out of town, were luring the trainees into...

  12. Chapter 9 LITTLE ROCK
    (pp. 56-60)

    As theconstitution’s investigative reporter, a role I carved out for myself at a time when there were few investigative reporters anywhere in the South, I became well known as a muckraker throughout Georgia in the 1950s and early 1960s. In those days, muckraking was still looked down on in many quarters after flourishing briefly at the turn of the century, in the Progressive era. (It was Theodore Roosevelt who first applied the term to the press, quoting a line fromThe Pilgrim’s Progressabout a man with a muckrake in his hand who rejected salvation to concentrate on filth.)...

    (pp. 61-68)

    In twelve years of intensive investigative reporting that involved hundreds of stories, I made a lot of enemies. I was physically attacked twice—once by the deputy sheriff in Hinesville, once by a doctor—and threatened many times. Among other things, I was denounced as a skunk, a little bastard, a lying son of a bitch, a hatchet man—described as “a cross between a sadist and a rattlesnake”—and a joree, a bird that digs up worms from under rocks.

    It was Marvin Griffin, governor of Georgia from 1955 to 1959, who came up with the term joree for...

  14. Chapter 11 DEAD MEN VOTING
    (pp. 69-72)

    The milledgeville series was a turning point in my career. Not only could I take pride in the bettering of treatment for thousands of mental patients; I also won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting under deadline pressure. While I was proud of the award, I learned later how lucky I was to win it. The Medical Association of Georgia had nominated me for the prize in the reporting category, but Bill Fields got the Georgia Press Association to nominate the newspaper for a Pulitzer for public service.

    Many years later, while going through the Pulitzer Prize archives at Columbia...

  15. Chapter 12 SIN IN THE CLASSIC CITY
    (pp. 73-77)

    Mayor ralph snow of Athens sounded highly agitated when he telephoned me one day and asked if I would come over and look into how prostitution, illegal gambling, and liquor sales were victimizing some of the sixty-three hundred students at the University of Georgia. Athens billed itself as the Classic City and was especially proud of the university, the nation’s oldest state-chartered university, founded in 1875.

    The mayor was particularly upset about four houses of prostitution he said were catering to students, including many minors. He told me he had been offered a four-hundred-dollar-a-week bribe to allow the houses to...

  16. Chapter 13 HARVARD MAN
    (pp. 78-84)

    My milledgeville series continued to attract favorable attention. In 1960, Sigma Delta Chi, the Society of Professional Journalists, selected theConstitutionfor its prestigious public service award. The award ceremony was to be held in Washington, and Bill Fields assigned me to accompany Ralph McGill to Washington for the presentation.

    McGill was seated at the head table, but when it came time to accept the award, he motioned to me and said, “You come up and get it, Jack, you did all the work.” It was a magnanimous gesture that turned out to have a considerable impact on my career....

    (pp. 85-89)

    One day after returning from Harvard, I was in the Georgia House of Representatives when the speaker suddenly shouted, “Mr. Doorkeeper, get those niggers out of the white section of the gallery!” Several white house aides rushed over and hustled Julian Bond and other prominent blacks out of the gallery. (After passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Bond, a former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee official who was to become a good friend of mine, was elected to the Georgia state senate and more recently served as chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.) I was...

  18. Chapter 15 MAKING THE BREAK
    (pp. 90-93)

    By the time i finished covering the Penn trial, I realized it was past time for me to start plunging into the civil rights movement and racism, that I was missing out on something huge and important. But theConstitutionwas not the place to start. Then, unexpectedly, the opportunity I needed came along.

    A Nieman classmate of mine, David Kraslow, who was then with Knight Newspapers but later joined theLos Angeles Times, heard that the Times was planning to open a bureau in Atlanta in early 1965. He recommended me for the job. The voting rights drive in...

  19. Chapter 16 SELMA
    (pp. 94-102)

    I started with theTimeson February 1, 1965, but I scarcely had time to inspect my office and say hello to my new secretary before taking off for Selma. Dr. King’s voting rights demonstrations, which began officially in January, were red hot, and Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies had already arrested about sixteen hundred demonstrators in the previous few days before I arrived.

    I arrived with scant background on the situation, but Roy Reed, the Atlanta correspondent for theNew York Times, gave me a complete fill on what had been going on, and what the...

  20. Chapter 17 JIM CROW JUSTICE
    (pp. 103-110)

    I remained haunted by the Lemuel Penn trial, in which the all-white jury refused to convict the two Klansmen despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt. The outcome got me to thinking about how blacks were being grossly and systematically mistreated by the judicial system in the Deep South, and I started digging into the subject while still covering Selma. Now operating in high dudgeon mode, I collected enough information within four months to write a series of articles which ran in theTimeson page one for five consecutive days under the headline “Jim Crow Justice.”

    My intention was to...

    (pp. 111-118)

    Throughout my long career, I covered an untold number of scandals in Georgia, six presidential campaigns, the Watergate scandal and Nixon impeachment proceedings, and almost every major news development in Washington. But reporting on the South in the 1960s, when I finally applied my investigative experience to the unfolding drama of racial change, remains the most satisfying assignment of all.

    I’ve talked about some of the heroes. I also encountered hundreds of vicious racists in different towns in the three states where I grew up and worked as a reporter—Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. But I found Bogalusa, Louisiana, to...

    (pp. 119-121)

    In bert’s barbershop in what whites called Bogalusa’s “Niggertown,” Charles Sims, the tough-talking head of the city’s heavily armed Deacons for Defense and Justice, a black vigilante group, told me how he had been threatened by white racists while picketing for civil rights on a downtown street.

    “They said, ‘Nigger, we’re gonna getcha.’ I said, ‘You better steal me, ’cause you better not let me see you.’”

    Along the wall of the one-chair barbershop, several sullen-faced young blacks slouched in chairs and watched intently as I interviewed Sims, a chunky but muscular man who deemed himself ready and eager to...

    (pp. 122-128)

    On febuary 8, 1968, I was in Los Angeles visitingTimeseditors when a news bulletin came over the Associated Press wire reporting that at least three students had been killed and more than twenty injured in an “exchange of gunfire” with state troopers during a civil rights protest at the all-black South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. I told Ed Guthman it made no sense to me that a group of students would be so foolish as to engage in a gun battle with heavily armed state troopers. He agreed and I immediately flew to South Carolina to check...

  24. Chapter 21 TRAVELS WITH GEORGE
    (pp. 129-137)

    George corley wallace, the fiery Alabama governor remembered for boasting he would defend “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever,” harangued a lot of reporters over his long political career. But knowing that I was a native of Alabama and that I didn’t mind pressing him with thorny questions at press conferences, he relished singling me out at his political rallies for his own special brand of ridicule.

    As my friend Ray Jenkins, anAlabama Journaleditor at the time who covered Wallace for years, once wrote of our relationship, “A few newsmen have so incurred the Governor’s wrath that...

    (pp. 138-145)

    I often think how lucky I was to report on Martin Luther King Jr. at a time when his credo of nonviolence was still a powerful, inspirational force. I had been covering him for only two weeks when he left Selma briefly to carry his voting rights drive to nearby Gee’s Bend, a tiny all-black community in the backwoods of Alabama. The contrast between the adulation he received there and what happened at the end of my coverage of his demonstrations in Memphis three years later could not have been starker.

    We journalists followed King nearly everywhere he went in...

  26. Chapter 23 AMBUSH IN MERIDIAN
    (pp. 146-155)

    Nineteen sixty-eight was a year like no other. In addition to the shattering national and international events including the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam, and the riots across the country in the wake of Dr. King’s murder, racial unrest continued to roil the South. I was still operating as a one-man band, madly dashing from protest march to court case to funeral procession. I didn’t get home much that year, and when I did, I was usually on the phone. Telephone calls in the middle of the night were not unusual, but the one I...

    (pp. 156-166)

    I came up from atlanta on my own. My three teenage children adamantly refused to move; the boys even threatened to run away if I tried to force them to part with their friends. Virginia didn’t want to move either. The truth is, our marriage was badly frayed by then. How could it have been otherwise when I was often putting in as many as twenty-five days a month on the road. Nevertheless, she and I remained married for four more years, and I continued to send home most of my earnings. This meant that I was living on pretty...

  28. Editor’s Note
    (pp. 167-170)
  29. Epilogue: The Washington Years
    (pp. 171-180)

    I first met Jack on a hectic street corner in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention—the new guy in the midwest bureau respectfully shaking hands with the legendary investigative and civil rights reporter from Atlanta. He sported a loud sports jacket, flattop haircut, and sideburns that nearly came down to his chin. What I really noticed though, was the way he went after a story. It was “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”

    As a fashion plate Jack evolved. But I was to learn that “full speed ahead” was about as close to idling as Jack ever got....

  30. Index
    (pp. 181-188)
  31. [Illustrations]
    (pp. 189-204)