Thursday will be Nov. 16, 2017. That’s 45 years to the day that East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s deputies shot and killed unarmed Southern University freshmen Denver Smith and Leonard Brown.
Neither student was near the deputies who were on the Baton Rouge campus, nor did they make any aggressive move toward the lawmen who were at least 40 yards away from them. Both were shot in the head and fell lifeless to the ground.
No deputy was charged. Local and state officials, even popular Gov. Edwin Edwards, did little about it. The shootings were followed by a sham investigation, and the shooter or shooters went on with life. Move on. Nothing to see here, folks.
The African-American community did what it had become accustomed to doing in the South. It complained, got nowhere with the government, then went on to mourn its dead.
I have never put this killing to rest. I try to write about the deaths of those two students as often as possible. I was standing with a group of students a short distance away from Smith and Brown. “There but for the grace of God go I,” I thought.
Students at Southern had been demonstrating, holding rallies and meeting with university officials to discuss changes they wanted that included the curriculum, Southern's facilities, and its finances. The protests culminated when some students staged a non-violent occupation of the administration building.
The board of supervisors for the Southern University System voted Friday to award posthumous…
Edwards ordered the National Guard onto the campus prior to the administration building takeover. The Sheriff’s Office came on campus the day of the building takeover with a number of deputies and military equipment, including an armored personnel carrier.
Students in the administration building basically yelled out to the deputies. There were groups of students facing the deputies, but a long way away from them. I was in another group about an equal distance to the right of the armed deputies.
Suddenly, the deputies opened fire on the students facing them. Seconds later, we could see Smith and Brown dead or dying on the sidewalk. No students had weapons or made threatening gestures at the deputies.
Two years earlier, law enforcement authorities had unleashed a rain of bullets into a dormitory at historically black Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. They claimed they saw a sniper in a window as students demonstrated there. The result was two students dead and about a dozen injured. Investigators found no sign of a sniper, weapons, spent shells, nothing. “Oops, so sad for your loss.”
I owe it to Smith, Brown and their families to remember them. I was a fellow freshman, and we were in college and had big dreams. They never got a chance to chase theirs.
I was in a funk on Wednesday morning. I was again reliving one of the worst days in my life.…
As I have written in previous columns and said during interviews and talks about the subject, I hope the person or persons who killed those innocent students have lived horrible lives. And, I hope their children have suffered. I hope when that their sleep is cut short by the screams of horror from the students who looked upon Smith and Brown lying on the sidewalk with blood draining from their heads.
And for the other deputies who knew who did it and didn’t tell, you are no more than members of a criminal conspiracy, and like the shooters, I hope the devil has chased you and yours.
But for all I know, those guys may have hosted a crawfish boil the day after the killings.
When Nov. 16 arrives, I will relive those minutes in my head. I will remember the smells, the sounds, temperature and looks on students' faces in the moments leading up to and after the killings. I will recount in my mind the fear I felt running away as tear gas was sent my way.
I will feel the sorrow and anger that I felt about what had happened. There is surely a place in hell for the killers and the public officials who swept these killings under the rug. You know who you are.
I hope there will be a program at my alma mater to explain what happened that day and what lead up to it. The school needs to honor the courage and sacrifice of all those students out there.
I also hope that the students who were on the back of the campus that day somehow take a moment, wherever they are, to remember what they witnessed and how they felt.
Some day, age may threaten my memories of Smith and Brown. I hope not. I want to mark this day as long as I can. I owe it to the memories of two classmates whom I never talked with, but whose unwarranted killings, I want to talk about as long as I have breath.
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly Advocate column, at firstname.lastname@example.org.