Friday, October 23, 2009
Most people under the age of 40 probably have trouble believing that journalists have been anything other than stenographers for the power elite. And, admittedly, a lot of them always have been. But not Jack Nelson.
The next year Mr. Nelson went to Selma, Ala., when Sheriff Jim Clark’s deputies and state troopers arrested more than 3,000 demonstrators there, beating many of them, as they demanded that blacks be allowed to register to vote. Mr. Nelson covered the Selma-to-Montgomery freedom marches, including Bloody Sunday, on March 7, 1965, when 600 marchers were attacked with billy clubs and tear gas.
Then came a scoop. On March 25, Viola Liuzzo, a white housewife from Detroit, was killed by gunfire from a passing car as she and another civil rights worker were driving from Selma to Montgomery. The next day four Ku Klux Klan members were arrested.
“Nelson sensed immediately that there was an untold story in how the F.B.I. had cracked the case so speedily,” Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff wrote in their book “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation” (Knopf, 2006).
“He began tapping the network of law enforcement sources he had started cultivating during his years as an investigative reporter,” the authors added. “Within days, he supplied readers of The Los Angeles Times with the answer: One of the four men in the Klan car when the shots were fired was an undercover F.B.I. informant. It was a remarkable exclusive.”
Another exclusive came in February 1968, when three black students were shot to death and 27 others were wounded by state troopers at South Carolina State College, a black college in Orangeburg. The troopers claimed that the students had charged them, hurling bottles and bricks.
Mr. Nelson went to the local hospital, introduced himself as “Nelson, with the Atlanta bureau” — he did not say “F.B.I.” — and asked to see the victims’ medical records. What he revealed became known as the Orangeburg massacre.
“It was eye-popping; they were shot in the soles of their feet, in the back of the head,” Mr. Nelson said in the interview. “Even today, if you ask somebody about the Orangeburg massacre, hardly anybody has a clue. But if you ask about Kent State, where it was white people, everybody knows about it.”
In 1970, Mr. Nelson learned that the F.B.I., in a sting operation, had given two Ku Klux Klansmen $36,500 to enroll Kathy Ainsworth, a sympathizer, pretending that it was for a plot to dynamite the home of a Jewish businessman in Meridian, Miss. When she and another Klansman arrived with the dynamite, a gun battle broke out and Ms. Ainsworth was killed.
“Nelson’s story of entrapment and the use of agents provocateurs raised more moral and legal questions than the F.B.I. was prepared to answer,” Time magazine wrote in October 1970. “Ever since, Nelson has been on the F.B.I.’s list of untouchable people.”