White Supremacy Killed Southern U. Students in 1972

It is virtually impossible to attend Southern University in Baton Rouge, La. without hearing about the tragic losses of students Leonard Brown and Denver Smith.

Their tragic deaths hit especially close to home for me because my aunt, Mae Vernon (Mae Smith at the time), was a student at Southern on Nov. 16, 1972 when the aforementioned students were gunned down by police officers after a semester of student protests. 


Southern students protested the fact that Louisiana state legislators only spent a fraction on each Southern pupil versus what they spent on students at LSU.

Students also were upset about class sizes, the curriculum and other concerns.


Instead of Brown and Smith, that could have easily been my aunt lying in a pool of her own blood. 


Although my family did not suffer a loss, that blessing is bittersweet because two other families did suffer tragic losses.

While watching the PBS documentary, “Tell Them We are Rising” about the history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), the most horrendous segment of the documentary dealt with the deaths of Brown and Smith, with the documentary even showing them being gunned down in cold blood in front of the president’s office.

My anger immediately turned from the police brutality that took the two students down to the president of Southern at the time, Leon Netterville.

When student protestors were arrested the morning of Nov. 16, 1972, other student leaders went to Netterville to persuade him to bail the students out of jail.

Netterville agreed and left the campus, probably en route to the jail.

He told the students to wait in his office until he secured the students’ release and returned.

Somehow, a rumor was reported to law enforcement that Netterville had been kidnapped by students and was being held hostage.

Law enforcement officials then took over the campus, throwing a canister containing tear gas into the crowd of protesting students.

When a Southern student hurled the canister back at the police officers, the cops began unloading shotgun shells into the crowd of students.

After the smoke cleared, Brown and Smith lay dead.

Students immediately believed that Netterville started the rumor and sold them out.

While that may be true (and if so there is no excuse), my anger turned from Netterville to the system of White supremacy that forced Black HBCU presidents like Netterville to capitulate and play the White man’s game just to keep the doors open at HBCUs.

In a Nov. 21, 1972 article in “The Harvard Crimson,” an unattributed reporter wrote: “However, it is clear that the real responsibility for these deaths lie not so much with one man or one gun as with the diseased structure of Southern public education. Black administrators, like Southern’s President Dr. G Leon Netterville, are forced to take hats in hand in order to obtain substance funding from White legislators, notorious for a traditional lack of concern for Black people and for education in general…

“The dilemma of such men as Netterville stems from his position in an educational system in which difference to Whites is an occupational necessity. However, the perpetuation of separate and unequal schooling in the South (is) more the result of national tolerance of it than it is the product of Black administrators in their compromised position. Only their efforts have made it possible for Black education to survive at all in an atmosphere of malignant neglect. For too long, they have had to battle alone.”

Often, too many in the Black community (including myself sometimes) falsely label a Black man or woman as a sellout, Uncle Tom or coon because they do something we do not agree with, not knowing what makes them do what they do.

If Netterville did not play the White man’s game, Southern University might not exist today and thousands upon thousands might not have attained the education that they received on the Baton Rouge, La. campus.

That education that they received has grown the Black middle class, changed the trajectory of Black families forever and created educated role models for young Black children to pattern their lives after.

HBCUs have made it possible for young Black kids to dream and achieve those dreams, opportunities that they might not have had at predominantly White institutions back in the day.

While Netterville possibly made a fatal mistake, his mistake should be looked at in context.

Therefore, before the Black community harshly judges one of their own with allegations of being a sellout, the community needs to understand that person’s situation, their experiences and what they have to do just to make things better for the next generation.

While Netterville’s alleged mistake was irreversible, Brown and Smith did not die in vain.

They were just the martyrs that allowed beautiful HBCUs like Southern to continue being the bastion of excellence that they were designed to be.


And every Southern graduate, like myself, exists because of the sacrifices that students and administrators of the past made on our behalf.

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