Edward Pratt: After 41 years, truth still elusive

No, I’m not going to let it go. Why should I? Someone or some people got away with murdering two young men. And, in this instance the killer or killers were wearing badges.

Today is the 41st anniversary of the killing of Denver Smith and Leonard Brown, unarmed, non-threatening students on Southern University’s campus.

For the most part, they have been forgotten. There are paintings of them on the hallway of a campus building that bears their names, the Smith-Brown Memorial Union.

Occasionally, there will be mention of them in a program somewhere. I doubt if many graduates in the last 20 years know much about Smith and Brown. Time has a way of washing away things we really would rather forget.

But I will continue to raise awareness of their deaths as long as I can because I was a student on the campus and less than 30 yards from where they were shot to death.

As the adage goes, “there but for the grace of God, go I.”

In the nearly four months I had been on campus before their deaths, I never met Smith or Brown. I may have crossed their paths, but we were all anonymous freshmen at the time.

We were still trying to find our way on a college campus. We were all trying to find out how we fit among 10,000 students, some from big cities like Chicago, and others from little towns like Angie, La.

Here is the abridged version of the killings of Smith and Brown on Nov. 16, 1972.

There had been weeks of student boycotts and protest on campus as student leaders were seeking better financial assistance from the state, and urging campus leaders to embrace their cause.

The discontent rose to another level on the cold, cloudy morning of Nov. 16. Students peacefully took over the administration building. Interestingly enough, the major student leaders had quietly been arrested overnight and were not on campus that morning.

Outside the building were sheriff’s deputies with guns and rifles. They also had an armored personnel carrier and a tank. Yes, a tear gas throwing tank called “Big Bertha.”

Dozens of unarmed students faced the armed sheriff’s deputies. The students were not throwing rocks nor anything else. They were voicing their displeasure while occupied by the Sheriff’s Office in front of them and the National Guard at another end of the campus.

The dance with danger in front of the administration exploded when the sheriff’s deputies, without provocation, started firing teargas into the crowds of students.

In the chaos that ensued, we could see two students lying on the ground.

The first inclination was that they had been trampled. But, when some student crouched over them, the screams indicated that the deputies had been shooting more than teargas. Denver Smith and Leonard Brown lay dying from shotgun wounds to the head.

In hindsight, it appears the killings were allowed to happened to bring to an end the protest on Southern’s campus. It was the way to get things “under control.”

As an 18-year-old student, it was a shattering experience. I could only imagine if they were my brothers, shot for no apparent reason.

I continue to mark this day because there may be someone still out there who is willing to tell the truth about what happened. The killer or killers may be alive and want to come clean about what they did.

There will be a lot of things happening on Southern’s campus today, including a football game. There will be the usual merriment that accompanies a college football game, the tailgating and fellowshipping with friends.

For the record, I will be taking part in all of that. But, I will find a moment to remember those two young men. And, I hope that some day the truth about their murders will come to light.

Maybe. Hopefully.

Ed Pratt is a former Advocate editor. He is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is epratt1972@yahoo.com.