Stanley Nelson is the editor of the weekly Concordia Sentinel, a 5,000-circulation newspaper in Ferriday, Louisiana. Nelson, head of a three-person newsroom, covers it all: the police, the courts, the drainage commission, politics, government, the rising this, the falling that, all of it playing out along the Mississippi River, sometimes in it, and sometimes across it, in Natchez, Mississippi. He writes a weekly column on the area’s history. His readers learn about local hero Jim Bowie’s famous sandbar fight in 1827, the tornado of 1840 that killed three hundred people, the cholera outbreak nine years later. Sometimes he writes about the area’s notorious past—gambling, prostitution, corruption, and the historic Klan-infestation of law enforcement. He also reports and writes about three unsolved civil rights murders that took place down his way, two in 1964, one in 1967. He is a member of the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, whose goal is to dig out and reveal the truth behind these murders. In January, he named a living suspect in the 1964 Klan murder of Frank Morris in Ferriday, which has led to a grand jury investigation. To some, Stanley might seem like just a slow-talking, easygoing good ol’ boy. He is, but that ain’t all. Even after plowing through thousands of documents, interviewing scores of people and writing more than 150 stories about murders that are more than four decades old, Stanley has an incredible memory for detail, the ability to follow the trail of complicated and shadowy whodunit theories, and unlimited passion for exploration and discovery. Last May, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in local reporting “for his courageous and determined efforts to unravel a long forgotten Ku Klux Klan murder during the Civil Rights era.” Hank Klibanoff interviewed Nelson in March.

A Moral Responsibility To Act

I was drawn to journalism in college because I loved writing. But when I started working for the Hanna family at their weekly newspapers in Louisiana, I found out pretty quickly that a lot more was expected of me. I had to take pictures and learn how to develop them in the darkroom. I’d answer the phones. I’d wait on customers at the front of the office, take their subscription money and give them a receipt. I’d sell ads if that needed to be done. Still, the early years offered me plenty of opportunities to focus on writing. How can you miss when you get a call about an old man who, thirty years after he carved the date and his initials into the shell of a terrapin, sees that same turtle crawling across his lawn again?

I came to see that while writing was fun, it was reporting that was the key to being a journalist. As a reporter, I was the eyes and ears of our readers. I covered a lot of criminal trials, dramatic ones, and it became clear readers were hungry for the coverage because we’d always sell out the newspaper. And if it weren’t for you, the reporter, they’d never know what’s going on. It requires you to get it right: the testimony, the cross examination, the meaning of it. You have to take good notes. I remember being accused by a school board member of having a tape recorder hidden in my pocket because he thought there was no way I could take notes that fast.
I am fortunate to have learned early that the key to reporting is having the willingness and sometimes the nerve to ask questions. But it’s more than that. As a journalist, I saw that I had a duty and responsibility to ask questions. I recall sitting in the Concordia Sentinel newsroom one day when the district attorney came in. He had been summoned by Sam Hanna Sr., the newspaper owner and editor, who asked me to join them.

Sam Hanna was a hard-nosed reporter and a great political writer. He loved everything about the newspaper business. He loved the sound and the feel of the presses rolling and humming. He smoked a cigar and was just an energetic force, a true newspaperman. He would type on his Underwood and it would sound like a machine gun. Whenever he’d be away on an assignment and needed to call in his story, he’d always ask for me to take dictation. He’d write it in his head as I was typing and it was perfect.

Hank Klibanoff is the James M. Cox Professor of Journalism at Emory University. In 2007, he won the Pulitzer Prize for history for The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, which he co-authored with Gene Roberts.