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'Scoop' follows Jack Nelson's rise to civil rights crusader

The Pulitzer-winning journalist's autobiography, completed by his wife Barbara Matusow, is a vivid account of the civil rights era and a reporter who wouldn't back down.

March 26, 2013|James Rainey, Los Angeles Times
  • Jack Nelson, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter, was The Times' Washington bureau chief from 1974 to 1996.
Jack Nelson, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter, was The Times'… (Los Angeles Times )

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 scrawny kid with middling grades and no particular consciousness about race into a crusader against inequality, who would follow a story's truth to the most uncomfortable places.

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.

This would not be the book to read to get the most fulsome account of the media's role in the equal rights struggle in the South. That would be "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation." Journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff won the Pulitzer Prize for the sweeping 2007 history.

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.

But Nelson was not interested in a sentimental nostalgia ride or plumbing his own emotions. This is one memoir that has an admirable surplus of what many others lack: figures of real consequence and moments of true history.

Nelson began his career as a teenager at the Biloxi Daily Herald in Mississippi, and he landed some big stories about illegal gambling and liquor sales. At the Atlanta Constitution, he cemented his reputation as a man who would not settle for the official story.

He rankled the Atlanta 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 from the state Department of Education showing the college's influential patrons included the Constitution's crusading 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 — he was body-slammed by a sheriff's deputy, punched by an angry doctor. The latter attack came as Nelson bored in on the ghastly conditions at Milledgeville State Mental Hospital in Georgia. Nelson's relentless string of 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 the shame of discrimination.

But once on the story, he did not dither. Nelson had no time to dither when he moved to The 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.

Even in the midst of a story that unfolded right before the media's eyes, the native son found ways to plumb below the surface. 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 and Nelson's encounters with some of the giant figures of the era: King, Alabama Gov. George Wallace and the activist who would go on to Congress, John Lewis.

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