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The Evolution of a Southern Reporter

Jack Nelson

Publication Year: 2013

From a gullible cub reporter with the Daily Herald in Biloxi and Gulfport, to the pugnacious Pulitzer Prize winner at the Atlanta Constitution, to the peerless beat reporter for the Los Angeles Times covering 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.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. vii-xiii

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pp. ix-xiv

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...

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Chapter 1. A Taste of Injustice

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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...

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Chapter 2. Birth of a Salesman

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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 the Daily Herald (now the Sun Herald), but even before that, as...

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Chapter 3. Biloxi Boy

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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...

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Chapter 4. “Scoop”

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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...

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Chapter 5. Sin and Salt Water

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pp. 30-36

Iin the late 1940s, race relations were ignored by the Daily 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...

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Chapter 6. My So-Called Military Career

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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...

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Chapter 7. Atlanta

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pp. 41-51

Ffor an ambitious reporter like me, going to work for the Constitution seemed 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...

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Chapter 8. Back on the Vice Beat

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pp. 52-55

a few months after joining the Constitution in 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...

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Chapter 9. Little Rock

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pp. 56-60

As the Constitution’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...

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Chapter 10. A Snake Pit Called Milledgeville

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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...

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Chapter 11. Dead Men Voting

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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...

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Chapter 12. Sin in the Classic City

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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...

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Chapter 13. Harvard Man

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pp. 78-84

My Milledgeville series continued to attract favorable attention. In 1960, Sigma Delta Chi, the Society of Professional Journalists, selected the Constitution for its prestigious public service award. The award ceremony was to be held in...

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Chapter 14. The Murder of Lemuel Penn

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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...

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Chapter 15. Making the Break

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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 the Constitution was not the place to start. Then,...

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Chapter 16. Selma

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pp. 94-102

I started with the Times on 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...

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Chapter 17. Jim Crow Justice

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pp. 103-110

I remained haunted by the Lemuel Penn trial, in which the allwhite 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...

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Chapter 18. The Meanest Town in the South

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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...

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Chapter 19. Deacons for Defense and Justice

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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...

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Chapter 20. The Orangeburg Massacre

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pp. 122-128

On febuary 8, 1968, I was in Los Angeles visiting Times editors 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...

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Chapter 21. Travels with George

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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...

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Chapter 22. Martin Luther King Jr.: From Gee’s Bend to Memphis

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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...

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Chapter 23. Ambush in Meridian

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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...

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Chapter 24. Number One on J. Edgar Hoover’s Shit List

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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...

Editor’s Note

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pp. 167-170

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Epilogue: The Washington Years

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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...

Index and Image Plates

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pp. 181-188

E-ISBN-13: 9781621030669
E-ISBN-10: 1617036587
Print-ISBN-13: 9781617036583

Page Count: 208
Illustrations: 36 b&w photographs
Publication Year: 2013