It might be said that the seeds of Jack Nelson’s legendary career as an investigative reporter were planted at the age of 15 when he was mercilessly bullied by a burly Biloxi, Miss. detective who accused him of a theft he hadn’t committed.
Nelson never forgot it, and when he was later hired as a $30-a-week cub reporter for the Biloxi Daily Herald, one of the first people he met on a story at the local police station was Detective Henry Cook. Nelson recognized him immediately but said nothing until Cook asked if he didn’t know him from somewhere. Nelson promptly pointed his finger and told him where he’d seen him before and what he thought of him, emphasizing his resentment that the detective hadn’t apologized when he admitted he was wrong.
Nelson also warned Cooper that if he found him mistreating anyone, he would make sure his name would appear in the newspaper, “on Page One, if possible.” Cooper sheepishly brushed off Nelson’s threat, saying he was “just doin’ my job.” Yet it was he who nicknamed Nelson “Scoop,” and became not only his best source for stories but a longtime ally.
The life and times of the late Jack Nelson are riveting reading. As his old friend and colleague Hank Klibanoff puts it in an introduction to the book, “This is not a sentimental scrapbook or a gauzy reminiscence about the days of gumshoes and glue pots. Jack straddled momentous periods in Southern and U.S. history and his memories … provide a fully grounded perspective on that history.”
Nelson’s work on the momentous drama of the civil rights battle of the ‘60s, as well as his flow of stories exposing bureaucratic corruption at all levels and in unlikely places, won him awards that included a Pulitzer Prize at the Atlanta Constitution and a leadership role in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times during such major dramas as the Watergate scandal.
He was a soft-voiced Southerner of short stature but with a fierce presence, and most of those who knew him well still remember the passion of his pointing finger. Detective Cooper in Biloxi may have been the first to be aware of the tenacity that lay behind that gesture, but he was far from the last.
There were few at whom Nelson didn’t level that finger, and his many targets included the late Gov. George Wallace, who preached the message of segregation in Alabama, as well as J. Edgar Hoover, whose FBI file on Nelson was immense. Ironically, Nelson worked for years with FBI agents who were among his most useful allies, although there came a time when he felt the agency was overstepping its mark in the pursuit of justice. Nelson also came to the conclusion that his coverage of corruption meant he had missed opportunities to write about civil rights “in the early years of what was in my opinion the greatest story of the 20th century.”
Nelson’s accounts of his participation in the historic civil rights marches during the era of Dr. Martin Luther King are little short of horror stories. It was his journalistic experience and his courage that saved his own life and that of his newspaper colleagues on the many occasions they faced the armed brutality of the Ku Klux Klan. In one remarkable account of the dangers of covering civil rights, Nelson describes the violence that permeated the Louisiana town of Bogalusa, “the meanest, most racist town I ever covered.” On one occasion, a group of journalists were invited by a representative of the Klan to cover a huge rally in that region. The “Klaxon,” as he was known, guaranteed their safety, and they walked into a trap.
It took a flying wedge of armed Klansmen to get the besieged journalists to safety, and it was Nelson they had to thank. He reminded the Klaxon of his promise to protect the reporters in order to get the Klan some good publicity, and warned him that if the journalists were attacked, not even the Klan would want the kind of coverage that would appear in the next day’s newspapers, which included the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Chicago Daily News and NBC.
Nelson wrote, “The depth and intensity of the hate of Bogalusa is seen in the snarls of white boys no older than eight or nine, some egged on by their screeching mothers.”
In those days, according to Nelson, those who covered the battle of civil rights followed the example of Claude Sitton, the trailblazing New York Times reporter, and carried cut-off notebooks tucked into their jackets, thus less likely to be identified as belonging to the press.
Nelson, who died in 2009, was one of the toughest investigative reporters, who antagonized many officials and left no apologies in his wake. But he did leave behind an unfinished work that his wife, journalist Barbara Matusow, sought to complete from a mass of his disorganized and unfinished papers. It was a search that she compared to “a treasure hunt,” and for those who now read this book, that indeed is what it will turn out to be.
Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.