Red Tide, Vol. II, No. 3 [Issue #7], November-December 1972
Two Murdered at Southern U.
[By Michael Letwin and Karen Pomer]
On November 16th, two black students on the Baton Rouge campus of Southern University were murdered and 24 other students were wounded by State and Parish police. These casualties were a result of the month old movement on the campus for better conditions including emergency medical care on campus, more voice in university affairs, including hiring and firing of teachers and administrators, the resignation of two administrators, and the right of students to audit university funds. Generally, the issues centered around the university meeting the needs of black students both in curriculum and action.
Around 8 a.m. on Nov. 16th, students gathered outside the student union building to discuss what should be done to strengthen the movement to meet these and other demands. At that time they were told that student leaders Charlene Hardenett, Lewis Anthony, Paul Shrivers, and Fred Prejean had been arrested by the sheriff’s deputies.
Upon hearing this, the students decided to go to President Netterville’s office in the administration building to inquire about the release of the students. When the students arrived, campus security guards, who were stationed near the entrance, opened the doors and about 50 students went inside. Others remained outside.
Several students then spoke to Netterville in his office. He told them: “Wait right here. I’m going downtown to see about it right now.” Netterville, a black administrator, lied. He didn’t go see about the arrested students, but to a State Board of Education meeting that was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m.
After Netterville left, Nathaniel Howard, another leader of the student organization, Students United, went through the building and informed the building staff that the students were not attempting a building takeover. He then went outside and told the people gathered there the same thing.
The people in the building went about their usual business, and Howard was even invited into the comptroller‘s office to look over some audit. Nevertheless, minutes later, sheriffs deputies and state police entered the campus and marched on the administration building.
Having brought along an armored personnel carrier and a tank-like vehicle equipped with flamethrowers and bazookas, they were prepared to wage war. The officers themselves, one student remarked, were equipped for battle in Viet Nam, bearing tear gas canisters, Thompson submachine guns, riot 20 shot guns, grenade launchers, and M-1 carbines — complete with bayonets.
Reports vary on exactly how the police attack began. Sheriff’s deputies claimed they issued a warning to the students to evacuate the building and the area outside. Students claimed they heard no warning. One student said: “They didn’t tell us anything. They didn’t tell us any kind of warning because we had telephones in there and nobody called to tell us that we had warnings or anything.”
After this “warning,” sheriff’s deputies and the state police waded into crowd of students outside the building, pushing and striking them with their guns. Then, according to Fred Prejean, a deputy rolled a tear gas canister into the crowd. It was picked up and thrown back.
After that, according to most reports, deputies hurled a barrage of tear gas canisters at the crowd and began to fire tear gas into the building. While this was occurring in front of the administration building, other police were behind the building. They had their guns drawn, and as the students and some office staff also caught ran out, they opened fire.
Sheriff Amiss claims his men fired only tear gas shells from their weapons. But according to one student who observed the incident, “I saw one dude over behind a tree with an M-16, just popping away.” Other black witnesses claimed that each time the police fired a round, they would pick it up from the ground and put it in their pockets.
When Nathaniel Howard ran out of the building, he overheard one cop, who recognized him, yell, “There’s that nigger! Get him, get him!” Almost immediately, other students who saw that Howard was about to be attacked formed a circle around him in an attempt to save his life. Howard was arrested, but luckily was not harmed. He later said that the police who were coming at him had their guns cocked and ready to fire.
During this time, in the front of the building two students were fatally shot by the police. Another leader of Students United, Brother Sabau Taibikam, was directing people out of the area for their safety. He was running with his back towards the police when he reached over to pick up a tear gas canister. As he bent over, shots rang out and the two brothers who were standing beside him fell.
One apparently died instantaneously from multiple wounds to his head and left rear side. The other, who received similar wounds, was left by the cops to die. Collings reported, “He lay there in a pool of blood. He was breathing, but he bled from his mouth and hands. I learned later that he too had died.”
The two victims were Denver A. Smith, 20, and Leonard Brown, 20. Students United, in a news conference the following day, stated that the police were really aiming at Brother Sabau, who was to be a target of assassination, along with Howard.
These facts were distorted for several hours by the media and government until finally the governor admitted, “I’m not going to say one of my men didn’t shoot them. I feel like they did not, but maybe we will never know.”
What can be done about such racist attacks as these? This incident is no different than what has been going on in this country for four centuries, since blacks were kidnapped and brought here for slavery.
When four white students were murdered by national guard at Kent State University in May of 1970, there were demonstrations of sympathy and solidarity all over the country. People were outraged.
But why is there no reaction now when two black students are murdered? (Although there have been scattered black demonstrations.) Well, people must have thought, “these are blacks after all, it happens to them all the time, but at Kent State they were white.”
Another example of this type of racism is the Olympic killings. In the 1972 Olympics, 9 Israelis were killed, and thousands of Jews and non-Jews all over the world were upset, outraged, and dismayed. Israeli troops and planes carried out raids of revenge in Syrian territory.
But where was the rage and revenge when in the 1968 Olympics, 200 Mexican students were and killed in the streets by government troops when demonstrating against the impoverished conditions in Mexico perpetrated by a dictatorship heavily backed by the U.S. government?
Six (6) million Vietnamese have been and are being killed by U.S. bombs and puppet troops during Nixon’s term of office, but when a Vietnamese village is wiped out by U.S. bombs, we think to ourselves “Well, they’re only ‘gooks.'” But when a cop or a racist George Wallace is hurt or killed, it’s a “terrible tragedy,” etc.
Vietnamese, Mexicans, and Southern U black students are allowed to be killed because of our indifference. If people let the government know that they could not get away with legal murder, because if they tried there would be a general strike in this country, then they could not. If when the Southern students were shot, thousands of students and teachers had taken action, then there not be these endless murders.
These students were fighting for the same rights we need and want. If we do not support others in their struggles, who will support us in ours? It is up to us to insure that these type of murders cannot go on freely any longer. Only by showing with our actions that we will not stand for it any longer will it stop.
When these murders happened, every school in L.A. should have been shut down in solidarity and the flag flown at half mast, but they weren’t. It’s up to students and teachers to make sure that next time, they are.
[Historical Note: The Red Tide was a revolutionary high school underground newspaper and youth organization that existed from 1971-1981. See: http://theredtide.wordpress.com/]