I was very busy last week, so I didn’t get to write about an injustice that I have written about several times. But I have made time this week.
Forty-two years ago last Sunday, on Nov. 16, 1972, two unarmed, innocent Southern University students were shot to death by Baton Rouge law enforcement officers on Southern University’s campus.
The killers have never been identified and obviously never brought to justice. This is my column to again ask “Why not?”
I was a student on Southern’s campus that chilly, overcast morning when Denver Smith and Leonard Brown were gunned down. They were among groups of students watching the unfolding of the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office occupation of the west side of the campus.
Even before Ferguson, Missouri, the EBR Sheriff’s Office was militarized. On that day, dozens of deputies were accompanied by a tank, yes, a tank, called Big Bertha, and an armored personnel carrier.
A couple dozen students had peacefully taken over the school’s Administration Building in a show of protest about a variety of things, including the lack of strong leadership by the university’s administration, poor state funding and a variety of campus issues.
A few dozen students were standing outside the building across the street (where I was standing with friends), and some were about 30 or 40 yards away to the north, facing the deputies.
The deputies with their shotguns and other weapons, including the tank, were poised and ready. The students were just looking, and some were shouting for law enforcement to leave. None of the students were threatening violence.
The deputies were demanding that the students leave the building, which was met with talking and some shouting. The students in the Administration Building were unarmed and not threatening the officers or anyone else.
Then out of nowhere, the deputies starting firing their weapons. They would say later that they were fired upon. That was proven not to be true. Then there were allegations that the two students were shot by someone else. Well, again, that was proven false.
Within seconds, Smith and Brown lay dead on the pavement. A number of students were sent scrambling away after the deputies started firing tear gas.
Here’s the deal. Someone knows who killed those students. The killers may still be alive, and some of their family members may know who did the killing. I hope all of the silent folk have had restless nights and have been miserable every single day since then, thinking about their cowardice.
Smith and Brown were freshmen. One of them could have gone on to cure cancer, be an astronaut or a journalist or a law enforcement officer.
Their faces are frozen in time on Southern’s campus in a building named in their honor, the Smith-Brown Memorial Union.
Their parents, siblings and friends have known grief since that fateful day.
To the law enforcement today with their high-tech cold case units: What about taking a look at this one?
And to those people who have come to me in recent years, suggesting that they know who fired those deadly rounds, go to the media. Maybe they will look into it. Take it to the District Attorney’s Office. Take it to the FBI.
My heart aches every year around this time because I always reflect on the only time I have been a spectator to someone being killed. Had I taken a position where they were, I could have been killed.
Or if the guy wearing the badge of authority that day had decided to turn to his right, the building I have entered thousands of times would be named the Pratt-someone else Memorial Union.
If so, I wish someone like me would continue to raise questions and make enough of a ruckus that my killer would be identified and prosecuted.
I will continue to write a column like this once a year until I can’t. I owe it to Smith and Brown and their families.
Edward Pratt, a former Advocate editor, is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.