1972: A Year Southern University Will Never Forget
By Keisha J Kelley
November 15, 2020
November 16, 2020 marks the 48th anniversary of the death of two students killed at Southern University. Denver Smith and Leonard Brown, were killed when the police were sent in to quell a demonstration at the Baton Rouge campus. The shooting took place on November 16, 1972, after weeks of demonstrations by students who were protesting inadequate services. Beyond their complaints about a lack of resources and facilities at Southern, students had other concerns. They also wanted classes that included more content about African-American history and culture—a reflection of the black consciousness movement sweeping the country.
In 2018, the documentary titled; Tell Them We are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, was released. The documentary was directed, co written, and produced by acclaimed filmmaker, Stanley Nelson. In the film, the story of the massacre unfolds. Dalton Honoré, one of only a few area African-American law enforcement officers at the time, was on campus that day as a Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputy. Honoré says authorities had gotten a phone call saying that the university’s president, Leon Netterville, “was being held hostage in the administration building that had been taken over by students, and we were ordered to free the hostage. . . . It came as a surprise to me . . . that afternoon that Dr. Netterville was not on campus.” Honore points to a state trooper’s lobbing of a tear gas canister into the students, then a student lobbing the canister back, as the spark that set off the violence. What is known is that the law enforcement response to the protest ended in gunfire, with Smith and Brown, who had been outside the administration building as bystanders, losing their lives.
The two men’s bodies had been removed by the time that Smith’s sister, who had been in the administration building with the protesters, came out. She could see the blood on the ground and knew that something terrible had happened.
As she walked back to her dorm in grief with fellow students, Smith’s sister learned who had died. “They said, ‘You know that was your brother, huh?’ I said ‘What?’ I went numb,” Josephine Smith-Jones recalls in the documentary.
Michael Cato, a Southern student at the time who also appears in the documentary, was dumbfounded by the deaths. “They were exercising their constitutional rights, and they got killed for it,” Cato says. Honore also says in the documentary it comes as a surprise to him knowing that President Netterville was not on campus that.
The students who were peacefully demonstrating, were blamed by Edwards, saying their actions were a "trigger" for the response.
During a dedication ceremony in 1992, the student union on campus was renamed the Smith-Brown Memorial Union. Family members of both men laid a wreath at the site where they died.
In 2017, The Southern University System board's academic affairs committee voted to award Smith and Brown posthumous degrees.
Denver Smith's nephew, Denver Terrance, has vowed to keep his uncles memory alive. As he continues to tell the story of what happened that chilly November morning back in 1972, he has established the Denver Smith Foundation in honor of his slain uncle. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to providing scholarships to students. Although only memories echo of Smith and Brown, their lives will forever have an impact on Southern University. Their story became history; Southern University history. Denver Smith and Leonard Brown: Lest We Forget. To donate to the the DSF please visit www.denversmithfoundation.org
picture courtesy of National Endowment for Humanities