Louisiana

Ed Pratt: 50 years later, Southern University student shootings still haunt us | Ed Pratt

There’s a road I’ve ridden down many times. It is not paved, tree lined, curved or hilly. Actually, it’s not a real road in the sense that anyone else can be on it.

This road is in my head and my heart and when I’m on it I see the same thing in the rearview mirror. I will see it again on November 16th, the same day I have traveled this road for 50 years.

On the morning of November 16, 1972, Denver Smith and Leonard Brown were standing in the midst of a group of students. Like them, I was at a distance with others, only “swelling the crowd,” as the old folks used to say.

Minutes later, they were shot dead by police on the Southern University campus in Baton Rouge.

They posed no threat to dozens of sheriff’s deputies, Louisiana State Troopers, and others on campus to put down a student demonstration.

No law enforcement officer has ever been arrested in the case.

I’ve written a number of columns about this tragedy, hoping for an outcome I always knew I probably would never get. Perhaps a word here or there would encourage someone to say, “I did it. I’m so sorry.” Or maybe, “I know how it happened and who did it.”

At best, I was able to keep the atrocities on the minds of some people and warn others who should know.

Fortunately, a few weeks ago the university board of directors reversed a decades-old ruling that banned student leaders and professors involved in the demonstrations and opposition to the administration from campus. The ban should have ended long ago.

I wonder if the police officer who killed the students has ever returned to campus in the last five decades.

There were many stories and documentaries about the day, including “Tell Them We Are Rising” and a four-part print series now being created by the LSU Cold Case Project. I support these accounts and others for viewing and reading.

In the fall of 1972, I was an 18-year-old freshman and still finding my college feet on the Southern campus. It was exciting to meet people like me from other states and countries.

They came from Africa, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Houston. There were students, some with weird accents, from places in Louisiana I’d never heard of, like Sicily Island, Cane River, Bernice, Edgard, Tallulah, Breaux Bridge, Lake Providence, and Minden.

The best way to describe it was that I felt like part of a big family. That’s one of the things about an HBCU (Historically Black College and University).

Days into the semester, there were stories about students and professors wanting more for college. This was followed by marches and student meetings where grievances were raised. The screams went nowhere with the administration.

Then, on the morning of November 16, everything came to a head. The campus housed the East Baton Rouge Township’s deputy sheriff’s deputy and the state police. Some demonstrators were inside the administration building and others outside.

Authorities threw tear gas at the students and the canister was returned. Seconds later, Smith and Brown, unarmed and threatening no one, were killed by a police shotgun.

I didn’t know Smith or Brown, but I do know that the shot that killed them could have killed or injured bystanders like me or someone I knew that day. I cannot imagine the pain of their parents, siblings, relatives and friends. Actually, it felt like part of my family died that day.

So here I am again, five decades later, traveling down that familiar path and knowing what will be in the rearview mirror next week.

Activities will be held at Southern University to commemorate the deaths and highlight the efforts of brave student leaders. I will join too.

I don’t know who wrote that, but there is great medicine in those words. “Let it hurt. let it bleed let it heal And let it be.”

Maybe I’ll take a spoonful just after driving down that road one more time.

Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman, at [email protected]

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