THE SHOTGUN KILLINGS of Denver A. Smith and Leonard Douglas Brown–two 20 year-old black students at Southern University’s Baton Rouge campus–have once again shown the dark and violent underside of American race relations. From this distance the cloud of tear-gas that covered the incident has not lifted and it is no more clear why the shot-gun shells were fired than who ordered not equipped police on the campus. Read the headlines of a 1972 Harvard Crimson article about the killing of Denver A. Smith and Leonard Douglas Brown.
Now 43 years later there is a student union at Southern University named in their honor. Denver Smith and Leonard Brown 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.
Smith and Brown were shot to death by buckshots from sheriff’s deputies during a mass demonstration.
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.
All these years later, and justice was never served. The irony of it all, is when we look at history blacks have always been targeted for protesting for equal treatment. As recently as last week with the students of the University of Missouri protesting about equal treatment of black students. Not much has changed as it relates to some of the struggles for equality. Let us remember their names, so that young blacks who want to be educated understand that others laid down their lives for the right for young people to freely protest. May we forever remember Denver Smith and Leonard Brown.