Journalist Nelson has last word in ‘Scoop’

Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Jack Nelson is seen in this 1972 photo.

SCOOP: The Evolution of a Southern Reporter. By Jack Nelson (edited by Barbara Matusow). University Press of Mississippi. 180 pages. $26.

Jack Nelson was a colleague, a friend and my co-author of “The Orangeburg Massacre.” The one element that remained supreme in his fearless professional life consisted of finding the truth. Whether it was the editor of his newspaper or FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover whom the truth offended or embarrassed, Nelson pursued it relentlessly. He never wavered.

His wife, Barbara Matusow, herself a professional writer and editor, meticulously went through 15 large boxes of clippings, manuscripts and letters that he saved to edit the final manuscript with professional polish.

The result is a powerful story of a journalist who left behind a record of exposing malfeasance in government, law enforcement and politics that made him a professional legend.

He grew up poor with a loving, caring mother and an alcoholic father in rural patches of Alabama and then in Biloxi, Miss. As an Atlanta Constitution reporter, he took college night school courses while exposing corruption that manifested itself with foul and vile treatment of some 8,000 mentally ill patients in Georgia. That chapter is titled “A Snake Pit Called Milledgeville.”

The stories he wrote of malfeasance, horrible treatment of patients and dishonest administrators resulted in a Pulitzer Prize, the highest honor among journalists.

Nelson’s life was one of steady growth and development. As his horizons broadened, he achieved national attention, first while covering civil rights as Atlanta bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.

In the days following the Orangeburg Massacre, in which three students were killed and 28 others injured by police gunfire on the campus of South Carolina State College (now university), Nelson became the first reporter to see the records of those that were wounded.

He reported that most were shot from the side or rear during eight to 10 seconds of Highway Patrol gunfire.

He later moved to the L.A. Times’ Washington Bureau as a reporter and then Washington bureau chief.

One of his articles, published at a critical time, became a significant element in advancing the story of Watergate that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Reviewer Jack Bass is professor emeritus of humanities and social sciences at the College of Charleston and author or co-author of eight other books.