JACKSON – It’s becoming apparent to many Americans in this high-tech era of the Internet, blogs, iPods, 24/7 cable “news” channels – and now, the biggest economic downturn in 70 years – that print journalism, namely newspapers, is becoming an endangered species.
To the great detriment of America’s democracy, we are seeing a steady disappearance of professional journalists – the digging reporters – either as a result of economic cutbacks from shrinking advertising revenues, or, by deaths.
Two weeks ago, we lost to cancer at age 80 one of the really great ones – Jack Nelson, the ex-Mississippian who went on to build a remarkable 62-year career as a tough, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and long a fixture on Public Broadcasting’s Washington Week in Review.
To me, Jack’s death brought deep personal loss. From his days as an 18-year-old cub reporter – right out of high school – for the old Daily Herald of Biloxi, I considered him one of “my boys” and I was honored he referred to me as his mentor. That began in my early days 60 years ago as Mississippi correspondent for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. Although based in Jackson, I often covered conventions of state or national organizations invariably held on the Gulf Coast (remember, civil rights had not yet become the dominant Mississippi news story) and I took Jack under my wing when we showed up covering the same event.
Though I was not too much older than he at the time, I had a college degree in journalism and World War II service under my belt, and Jack, as an eager, aspiring newsman would ask me “what’s the lead?” on stories we were covering. Once back then I tricked him into ignoring an outrageous statement wily old U.S. Sen. Jim Eastland offhandedly tossed off at the state convention of county supervisors. Next morning, when my T-P story lead was far different than his, he accosted me about it. “Oh, didn’t I tell you about that?” I joked. Nonetheless, we remained lifelong dear friends.
After a short Army stint, Nelson resumed his news reporter track by landing a job on the Atlanta Constitution. He quickly burnished his reputation as a hard-hitting investigative reporter, uncovering local corruption and then a series exposing unconscionable abuses in a state mental hospital, and in 1960 won a Pulitzer for local reporting.
When the Los Angeles Times five years later opened its first Southern bureau in Atlanta and gave him the assignment, it was the start of Nelson’s decade-long career as a premier civil rights reporter.
Always the same pugnacious guy who boxed for his Biloxi high school, Nelson was noted for shaking his finger in the face of a Klan leader and demanding protection for a surrounded group of reporters after the Klansman had invited them to a rally in an open field outside Bogalusa, La.
Among the enemies he incurred with his stinging reporting were Alabama Gov. George Wallace and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Wallace was angered when Nelson zinged him in print for not protecting the marchers on the infamous Selma “Black Sunday.” Hoover in 1970 branded Nelson “an enemy of the FBI,” when the reporter revealed evidence that in a 1968 shootout during a reign of anti-Jewish Klan violence in Meridian, the agency plotted with city police to ambush and kill an elusive Klan bomber when he attempted to deliver a bomb at a prominent Jewish businessman’s home. The plot went awry when a different Klansman showed up, along with a white schoolteacher accomplice. Though riddled with bullets, the young Klansman survived but the female teacher died.
Together, Jack and I covered the state court trial and conviction of Klansman Tommy Tarrants (he got 30 years), but Nelson was never satisfied with the bureaucratic evidence used by the government. He doggedly pursued the case, resulting in his 1993 book “Terror in the Night” which revealed the plot in chilling detail while casting light on how the Klan targeted Mississippi Jews.
His wish had been to spend his 80th birthday in Biloxi but that never happened. He was in the hospital the last time we spoke by phone two weeks before pancreatic cancer ended his life. A memorial service will be held in Washington on Nov. 14 and next spring his ashes will come to Biloxi.
Bill Minor, a nationally honored journalist, has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at PO Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at email@example.com.