Southern University, located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is the country’s biggest historically Black college. Over 10,000 Black students attended the university in 1970. Despite the fact that the school president and the majority of the administration were Black, the university was controlled by the Louisiana State Legislature.
The state of Louisiana spent half as much money on Black students and facilities as it did on white students at primarily white schools and universities.
Southern University students had faced poor meals, insufficient financing, overcrowded and inadequate housing, including worn out and ripped mattresses in such horrible condition that many decided to sleep on the floor of their dorm rooms instead. Students also demanded additional African American history and culture courses, as well as a separate, Black-controlled board of trustees.
Students United, led by Rickey Hill and Fred J. Prejean, was created in November 1972 in an attempt to voice their issues about campus conditions to the university management. For nearly a month, students boycotted classes and organized protests around campus. Southern University had a big football fan base, and during one game, student demonstrators took over the field and forced the game to be stopped.
Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards ordered the campus closed for safety reasons, and the National Guard and local police officers were called in. They initially followed students across campus and employed intimidation techniques to put an end to the protests. In the early hours of November 15, four students were arrested, and the officers left the campus.
The student association met with the university president, Dr. G. Leon Netterville, on November 16 and requested him to go to the police and request the release of the arrested students. Dr. Netterville agreed and informed the pupils they may wait in his office until he returned.
Meanwhile, other students set fire to the university’s registration office and other facilities. Despite the fact that Dr. Netterville had left campus, an unknown caller informed authorities that the university president was being held hostage by students in his administration building.
Over 300 police and National Guard officers arrived on campus dressed in riot gear and accompanied by a tank. They surrounded the administration building and summoned the students outside. Officers fired tear gas canisters at the students as they emerged from the building.
One student tossed the canister back at the officers, and rounds were fired from both the tank and the surrounding officers. Leonard Brown and Denver Smith were killed as the smoke cleared. According to the coroner, Hypolyte Landry, the students were killed by buckshot or shrapnel. The cop was never charged with anything.
Following the incident, President Netterville resigned, and the institution was governed by a separate board of trustees, which was established in 1975. Southern University bestowed posthumous degrees on Brown and Smith in 2017.
Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Universities and Universities, a PBS documentary, was broadcast in 2017 and detailed the movements across southern colleges as well as the violence at Southern University.