The Human Jukebox is one of the first things viewers will hear and see during the introductory moments of the new PBS film "Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities."

As a collage of photos and film clips brings one into this 90-minute "Independent Lens" production, the inimitable Southern University Marching Band's rousing sound and precision show hint at an upbeat examination of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the U.S.

Unfortunately, history isn't always pretty, and is sometimes tragic. In an expanded segment on Southern later in the program, one of the Baton Rouge university's darkest days is relived.

During the 1970s, thousands of students from across the nation were flocking to Southern seeking an education among people like themselves, with teachers and administrators like themselves.

"The mix of people was one of the elements that defined Southern," former student Rickey Hill recalls in the film.

Southern, the largest HBCU in the country at the time, had black faculty and a black president, but the purse strings were still being held by white elected officials. Figures showed only half as much money per pupil was being spent on students at Southern as was being spent on students at the predominately white LSU.

Three or four weeks into the fall 1972 semester, students' dissatisfaction mounted.

"You started getting this vibe of unhappiness," former student Ed Pratt says in the film.

The students wanted more teachers, more input into the curriculum, and a better physical space in which to learn.

"And it started to build, and it started to build," Pratt says.

Taking their concerns to Southern President Leon Netterville and not getting the response they wanted, the students decided to boycott classes for a month.

They also chose the occasion of a packed stadium on a Saturday to draw more attention to their cause.

"There were demonstrators who went onto the football field and stopped a football game. That's when I was impressed," Pratt remembers. "I said, 'This is really big. Maybe the administration ought to listen to them and maybe something great is going to happen here.'"

With an increased police presence on campus ordered by Gov. Edwin Edwards, the movement remained nonviolent until Nov. 16, 1972. As word spread that four student protesters had been arrested overnight, a group formed and marched to the president's office and asked Netterville to go to the jail and have them released. Netterville agreed, told the group to wait there, and left campus. 

Shortly after, police received an anonymous call from Southern telling them Netterville was being held hostage, and that the administration building had been taken over by students.

The governor sent 300 law enforcement officers and the State Police's armored personnel carrier dubbed "Big Bertha" to campus to maintain order.

"We immediately knew that Netterville had betrayed us," says Hill, one of the leaders of the march.

"When a state policeman rolled a tear gas canister toward the crowd (outside the administration building), … a student picked it up and hurled it back toward deputies. That's when hell broke loose," Dalton Honore, an East Baton Rouge Parish deputy at the scene, recounts.

Film footage shows students running and smoke filling the area, as the sounds of gunshots and screams interspersed. When the violent exchange was over, student Denver Smith and the body of Leonard Brown lay on the sidewalk. Smith died later at a hospital.

"They said, 'You know that was your brother, huh?'" Josephine Smith-Jones remembers. "I said, 'What?' I went numb.

"He (Denver Smith) was never part of the movement at all. If I hadn't been involved, my brother would never have been there."

"Nobody sent their child to school to die," echoes student Michael Cato. "It never should have happened."

The governor, in a formal statement following the shootings, says, "The accident would not have happened at all if they had not taken it upon themselves to occupy the president's office. That was the triggering mechanism. Had they just gone about peacefully demonstrating and agitating and doing what they wanted to do and had a right to do, it never would have happened."

The tragedy still haunts Hill.

"I relive that moment, because I was one of the leaders who led the students to Netterville's office, who believed that he would go down and get these students out of jail, and they trusted me. Though I didn't pull the trigger, as a leader I may have been responsible."


'Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities'

WHEN: 8 p.m. Monday

CHANNEL: WLPB, Channel 27 (cable Channel 12)

RELATED PROGRAMMING: 9:30 p.m., 'Signpost to Freedom: The 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott'; and 10 p.m., 'Google BR Bus Boycott Discussion'

FILMMAKER: Stanley Nelson

INFO:  pbs.org/independentlens/films/tell-them-we-are-rising/ (where the film will be available for viewing starting Tuesday)

Follow Judy Bergeron on Twitter, @judybergeronbr.