Commemorating the Student Movement and the Deaths of Denver Smith and Leonard Brown on November 16th with An Overdue Apology

November 16, 2022 will mark the 50th anniversary of the shootings of Leonard Brown and Denver Smith on the campus of Southern University in Baton Rouge (SU). Both Smith and Brown were unarmed and neither engaged in any acts of aggression that day. Yet, they were shot and killed. It has been 50 years since and there has been no civil or criminal accountability despite multiple state and federal investigations all deeming them to be free of fault. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only wrong that will resurface on November 16th.  

The Southern University and A&M College System is the only historically Black university system in America. In 1972, SU had a Black president and a Black administration. However, an all-white Board governed the school’s affairs. Moreover, there was a drastic resource imbalance. LSU, a predominately White school across the city, got more of the state’s budget and SU students felt the disparities. The students wanted a greater voice in their educational experience, which translated into input on matters relative to student life, policy, hiring, retention and curricular. And they wanted the institution to direct resources toward meeting the needs of the neighboring community.  

On the dreadful day of November 16th, student leaders were in talks with President Netterville in hopes of gaining his assistance in securing the release of students who were in custody as a result on their involvement in this movement. Official findings establish those talks in his campus to be cordial. It appears President Netterville left his office under the ruse of answering those calls for aid.  After he left, law enforcement arrived upon campus with militarized force. They came bearing shotguns, smoke canisters, and “Big Bertha,” an armored tank.  Some suggest an anonymous caller reported to law enforcement that students were holding President Netterville hostage in his office. Others opine that state officials wanted to end the years of agitation that day. Whatever the accelerant, the end was realized.  

These 1972 demonstrations on campus did not happen in a vacuum. The 1960’s – 1970’s was an era of student activism.  In 1968, students at South Carolina State University demonstrated against a nearby bowling alley that prohibited Black customers from entering. As events transpired, three Black students were shot and killed by law enforcement. Subsequent findings concluded that the shooting was not prompted by any justifiable provocation. Ironically, no one has been held accountable. Two years later, in 1970, two more Black students were shot and killed by local law enforcement officers at Jackson State University. This shooting was also determined to be unprovoked, but a federal grand jury did not return an indictment. There were many other sites of student protests, including SU. The demands of SU student activists in the 1960s’ were over an end to segregation. While the facts of all these cases might sound alike, there is one radical difference.   

Some states have begun the important work of racial healing.  In 2021, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba of Jackson, Mississippi and Mississippi Senator Hillman Frazier issued an apology for the shooting deaths that occurred 51 years ago on Jackson State University’s Campus. The state of Louisiana MUST follow suit and apologize not only to the families of Smith and Brown, but also to the student leaders. The reality is that the bullets did not just claim the lives of Smith and Brown. Fragments also struck the student leaders and the community. There is no moving forward without this critical step in the reconciliation process being undertaken. Without this apology and attempt at repair, the November 16th commemorations will be hollow.  

Lemuel is a second-year student at Southern University Law Center, writing this op-ed in partnership with Professor Angela A. Allen-Bell’s Civil Rights Litigation class.

Help Keep Big Easy Magazine Alive

Hey guys!

Covid-19 is challenging the way we conduct business. As small businesses suffer economic losses, they aren’t able to spend money advertising.

Please donate today to help us sustain local independent journalism and allow us to continue to offer subscription-free coverage of progressive issues.

Thank you,
Scott Ploof
Big Easy Magazine

Share this Article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *