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Jack Nelson, 80, former L.A. Times investigative reporter and Washington bureau chief

October 21, 2009 | 11:44 am

Jacknelsonpic Jack Nelson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newsman who led The Times' Washington bureau for two decades, was known for scooping the Washington Post on a crucial Watergate story. But for "sheer drama and witnessing history in the making," he wrote some years ago, nothing equaled the five years he spent covering the civil rights movement in his native South.

One of his greatest achievements was uncovering the real story behind the violent 1968 clash at predominantly black South Carolina State College in Orangeburg that left three students dead and 27 injured. Nelson was suspicious of the initial news reports that said the police had acted in self-defense after the students attacked them with rocks and other crude weapons.

How Nelson, who died Wednesday, disproved the official accounts became journalism legend.

With utter confidence — "He had what the military calls command presence," said Gene Roberts Jr., a longtime friend and former top editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times — Nelson walked into the hospital where the injured students were being treated and told the medical personnel, "My name is Nelson. I'm with the bureau out of Atlanta and I've come to see the charts."

His statements were technically correct: He was with The Times' Atlanta bureau. But in his dark suit and crew-cut, he easily passed for an agent of the bureau, as in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The hospital staff handed over the students' medical charts.

Those records showed Nelson that most of the students had been shot in the back or the soles of their feet — proof that they had been retreating or lying on the ground to escape the gunfire when the lawmen shot them. "The truth emerging about the shooting was entirely dependent on Jack," Roberts said recently. Thanks to Nelson's reporting, the incident went down in civil rights history as the Orangeburg Massacre, which also was the title of a book Nelson and colleague Jack Bass wrote on it.

For more on Nelson's adventures in the South, see "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation" by Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.

-- Elaine Woo

Photo: Jack Nelson, longtime Washington bureau chief of The Times, in an undated photo. Credit: Los Angeles Times