Memorial services will be held Saturday in Washington for my friend and colleague, Jack Nelson, who died of pancreatic cancer last month. Direct, on point and precisely true: That was Jack Nelson, one of America's greatest journalists during the second half of the 20th Century and co-author with me of The Orangeburg Massacre.
His current successor as Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief, Doyle McManus, described Jack as "a reporter's reporter. He maintained that the main thing people want from newspapers is facts - facts they didn't know before, and preferably facts that somebody didn't want them to know.... He believed the only good reason to be a reporter was to reveal hidden facts and bring them to light."
His reporting "has special significance in Orangeburg," that city's newspaper, The Times and Democrat, forthrightly told its readers after his death. A sensitive editorial recognized his contribution to truth about that community's most tragic event - the outcome of black college students protesting a segregated bowling alley in 1968. The editorial called our book "the most authoritative account of events that will forever be etched in the history and conscience of Orangeburg."
The Orangeburg Massacre remains not just Orangeburg's, but South Carolina's most tragic event during the civil rights era: three students killed and 28 others wounded by Highway Patrolmen who were issued deadly buckshot and given individual authority to fire if they believed their or a fellow officer's life was threatened. As we discovered in our research, those instructions violated procedures in all existing crowd-control manuals at the time - including those of the FBI, Army and National Guard. All directed use of minimum force and restricted firing a weapon in such a situation unless a senior officer issues a command.
The editorial recounted the story of how Nelson learned and reported the facts that almost all the students were shot from the side or rear, repudiating reports given by state officials of a charging mob. Then a 39-year-old crew-cut veteran of extensive front-line reporting of civil rights violence centered in the Deep South states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, Nelson strode assertively into the Orangeburg hospital a few days after the shooting. Clad in coat and tie, he boldly announced he was "from the bureau in Atlanta" and wanted to see medical records of all who were shot.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation in those days was widely referred to a "the Bureau," and hospital functionaries obeyed the request. Jack knew enough anatomy to understand that wounds to the "anterior" whatever or the soles of the feet, or the buttocks, or the side of a shoulder all meant someone was shot from the side or rear. After he reported "at least" 17 received such wounds, he was attacked for "irresponsible" reporting. As it turned out, medical evidence presented by the Department of Justice at the trial of nine Highway Patrolmen showed that almost all those shot were wounded from the side or rear while turning to flee or dive for the ground.
I once asked Jack what he would have done if challenged at the hospital on his "bureau" credentials. He sheepishly replied, "Well, I was from the Los Angeles Times bureau in Atlanta."
My most vivid memory of writing The Orangeburg Massacre with Jack involved the first time we came to loggerheads 40 years ago over specific language when editing each other's chapter drafts that we wrote sitting side-by-side in an ocean-front cottage in North Myrtle Beach. I suggested we take a walk on the beach, picking up a rubberized football that I had brought. As we walked and tossed the football, one of us said, "You're right." It resulted in a good bit of beach-walking, and the formula never failed.
A one-hour PBS documentary about the Orangeburg Massacre, "Scarred Justice," will be distributed nationally in February, the 42nd anniversary date. It includes interview footage with Jack.
The state of South Carolina has yet to come to terms with this tragedy - to conduct its own full investigation and make an official report of the facts and recommendations necessary for reconciliation and closure. The Legislature so far has refused to act.
I will be with those in Washington honoring my friend.