There was a memorial today for Jack Nelson, the great civil rights reporter who served as Washington Bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times for 21 years and was a familiar face and voice on Washington Week in Review on PBS. It was an extraordinary gathering that will be replayed on C-Span at 8 p.m. EST tonight.
There have been too many memorials of late among reporters and their friends in Washington: Jody Powell, Bill Safire, John Mashek, just in the last few weeks.
But today’s event in the auditorium of the National Geographic Society in Washington was remarkable as a reminder of that special breed of reporter, most of them born in the south, who grew up personally and professionally covering the civil rights revolution. It was the seminal story of their time and they brought it home to the nation at large.
Several outstanding examples of the breed were in the audience today: Eugene Patterson, Gene Roberts and Howell Raines among them, along with some of those who fought the fight, including Rep. John Lewis and Julian Bond.
Gene Patterson recalled that Jack Nelson came to his job with a “high school education and a low boiling point” about the injustices he saw inflicted on African Americans in the south. He quickly proved to be, Patterson said, “the scourge of crooked sheriffs and thieving statehouse politicians” all over the region. Gene Roberts recalled that Jack took on the Klansmen he encountered, “pointing his finger at them like a pistol” as he questioned them.
Jack’s story and those of other reporters like him are recounted in “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and Awakening of a Nation,” which Gene Roberts wrote with Hank Klibanoff in 2006. It is worth a read, or a re-read, as a way to understand the careers and commitment of this dying breed.