Nelson died of pancreatic cancer Wednesday at his home in Bethesda, Md., according to his wife, journalist Barbara Matusow.
The veteran newsman was recruited from the Atlanta Constitution in 1965 as part of publisher Otis Chandler’s effort to transform The Times into one of the country's foremost dailies. An aggressive reporter who had exposed abuses at Georgia's biggest mental institution, Nelson went on to break major stories on the civil rights movement for The Times, particularly in his coverage of the shooting of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo and the slaying of three black students in South Carolina in what is known as the Orangeburg Massacre.
As the Watergate scandal unfolded during President Nixon's reelection drive, Nelson scored an exclusive interview with Alfred C. Baldwin III, an ex-FBI agent hired by White House operatives, who witnessed the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters on June 17, 1972. The stories resulting from Nelson's interview with Baldwin were the first to link the burglary "right to the heart of the Nixon reelection campaign," David Halberstam wrote in his 1979 media history, “The Powers That Be.”
Named in 1975 to lead the Washington bureau, Nelson oversaw its evolution over the next 21 years into what Gene Roberts Jr., former managing editor of the New York Times and a onetime rival of Nelson's on the civil rights beat, called "arguably one of the finest bureaus ever in Washington."
"Just his work at the Constitution would be a distinguished career for most journalists," Roberts said. "Then add that he was one of the most effective reporters in the civil rights era, all before you even get to him being bureau chief in Washington.
"All in all, I would say he was one of the most important journalists of the 20th century."
A slender man with a Southerner's easy manner, Nelson was born Oct. 11, 1929, in Talladega, Ala., where his father ran a fruit store during the Depression. The younger Nelson drew Talladega's citizens into the shop with vaudevillian humor ("Lady, you dropped your handkerchief," pause, "in St. Louis yesterday"), displaying a talent for connecting with people that would bolster his later success as a reporter.
He said that "being a reporter is a lot like being a good salesman," said Richard T. Cooper, a longtime friend and a Washington bureau editor for Tribune Co., which owns The Times. "You had to be able to sell yourself to people, convince them that they should answer your question or show you the records" or buy a bag of fruit from your father's store.
Nelson and his family moved to Georgia and eventually to Biloxi, Miss., where he graduated from Notre Dame High School in 1947. Without stopping for college (he later studied briefly at Georgia State College), the teenager launched his career by answering an ad for a job at the Biloxi Daily Herald. He was soon called "Scoop" for vigorous reporting on corrupt officials and gambling payoffs.
In 1952, after a stint writing news releases for the Army, he joined the staff of the Atlanta Constitution. In a series of articles on Georgia's Milledgeville Central State Hospital for the mentally ill, he exposed an array of abuses, including experimental treatments of patients without consent, alcohol and drug abuse by on-duty doctors, and nurses who were allowed to perform major surgery. As a result of his reporting, the hospital was overhauled and Nelson won a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in 1960.
When he joined the Los Angeles Times five years later, the civil rights movement had been underway for a decade, but The Times "had no coverage of the South. We were doing terribly covering the South," recalled former Managing Editor George Cotliar, who was national news editor in the 1960s. So the paper hired Nelson to close the gap.
He opened The Times' Atlanta bureau and immediately began covering the voting rights demonstrations in Selma, Ala., where on "Bloody Sunday," March 7, 1965, state troopers and local lawmen clubbed and tear-gassed 600 civil rights marchers en route to Montgomery. "He just annihilated every other paper. He was ahead of everyone on everything," said Cotliar, who called Nelson "the toughest, hardest-charging, finest reporter I've known in my 40 years in the business."
Nelson's stories quoted sources critical of then-Gov. George Wallace's failure to protect the marchers. According to Bill Kovach, who covered the protests for the Nashville Tennessean and later was editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the governor singled out Nelson for ridicule, pointing out to white audiences "outsiders like Jack Nelson there of the L.A. Times -- that one there with the burr haircut -- trying to tell us Alabamians how to run our state."
In 1970 Nelson experienced the wrath of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. The reporter, after conducting an eight-month investigation, wrote a story about how the agency and police in Meridian, Miss., shot two Ku Klux Klan members in a sting operation bankrolled by the local Jewish community. One of the Klan members, a woman, died in the ambush.
Hoover attempted to suppress the story by smearing Nelson as a drunk, which he was not. ("What they didn't realize," the reporter later quipped to Hoover biographer Curt Gentry, "is that you can't ruin a newspaperman by branding him a drunk.") By defying Hoover, he lost his FBI sources but wrote the article, which ran on Page 1.
Twenty years later, Nelson dusted off his notes from the story and wrote "Terror in the Night" (1993), a book that described the shooting in the context of the Klan's shift from battling blacks to targeting Jews, whom it had begun to regard as the real leaders of the civil rights movement.
Nelson wrote "The Censors and the Schools" (1963) with Roberts; “The Orangeburg Massacre” (1970) with Jack Bass; "The FBI and the Berrigans" (1972) with Ronald J. Ostrow; and "High School Journalism in America" (1974).