On November 16, 1972—forty years ago today—two African American students from Southern University (Baton Rouge) were killed on campus by white sheriff’s deputies during a peaceful protest.
The two victims were taking part in a peaceful, unarmed protest by African American students who gathered at the university’s administration building to protest against the administration officials and their policies. Protests were ongoing as students fought for a greater voice in school affairs and the resignation of certain administrators. Several student protesters had been arrested the previous night, and the students who entered the administration building on November 16 sought their release. State police and sheriff’s deputies entered the administration building with firearms and tear gas; when they left, two students, Denver Smith and Leonard Brown, lay dead.
Louisiana’s governor, Edwin Edwards, ordered the campus closed and declared a state of emergency for Baton Rouge, claiming that these “militant” students posed a threat. National Guard troops and police wearing riot gear patrolled Southern University.
Sheriffs denied shooting the young men; Governor Edwards said the fatal shots might have accidentally come from the deputies’ guns, or might have come from any of several other sources: “It is obvious there are discrepancies and questions. . . . In the heat of that kind of situation even if someone accidentally took a buckshot shell out of his pocket and loaded it and shot it, he would not be able to tell himself afterwards whether he had done it.”
Although Edwards ordered an investigation, the shooter or shooters were never identified.
This was not the first such shooting; two years earlier, unarmed students at Kent State had been killed by the Ohio National Guard during a protest against the American invasion of Cambodia. But this time, the shooting did not receive as much media attention—and most of the coverage that did appear cast the students as “militant” (see, for example, this UPI article).
Southern University’s Smith-Brown Memorial Union was named in honor of the two students.
Photographs from the event can be found online through the HBCU Library Alliance. To read newspaper articles printed after the shooting, click here, here, here, and here. The New York Times article is available here. To read an article that appeared in the school newspaper in 1973, click here.