In the fall of 1972 at Southern University in Baton Rouge, students began protesting for better school conditions.
The students formed a group called “Students United,” and created a list of demands including better housing, food and medical services, treatment of pests in dorms, proper equipment for departments and more emphasis on the Black experience in the curriculum.
Students noted that LSU’s main campus in Baton Rouge spent $2,325 per student, while Southern spent only $1,327 per student, and that their school was losing faculty to better pay elsewhere.
The students also demanded the resignation of the university president G. Leon Netterville and thought a council system with student representation could bring about further changes in the school.
Weeks of class boycotts and protests lead the university to call in law enforcement several times and eventually police issued arrest warrants for four of the Students United leaders on November 16, 1972.
Upon learning about the arrests, hundreds of students quickly began gathering in and around the Administration Building on campus to urge President Netterville to release the students from jail.
Instead of negotiating with the students as other universities had done in similar circumstances, the administration again called in law enforcement to disperse the protestors.
Chaos ensued when a state police officer mistook a commander’s comment for an order and threw a tear gas canister toward the students.
Amidst the gas, an unidentified sheriff’s deputy fired a single buckshot that hit two students. Leonard “Douglas” Brown died instantly. Denver Smith died 30 minutes later at the hospital.
When the gas cleared, Netterville and Governor Edwin Edwards were notified and shut down the school for the rest of the semester.
In the following days and weeks, multiple organizations including the FBI, the state attorney general, and a group of prominent Black leaders each launched an investigation into the shooting.
The FBI narrowed the suspect list of law enforcement at Southern that day down to nine East Baton Rouge sheriff’s deputies that were standing in front of a palm tree near the Administration Building, only 40 to 50 feet away from the students when they were shot.
The agents then turned to polygraph tests to rule out the remaining suspects, until there were three left
A state grand jury convened in March 1973 and met almost daily for four months to consider the Southern shooting and other cases, however, the panel wrapped up in July 1973 without identifying the shooter.
In 1974, a federal grand jury convened in Baton Rouge but no indictments were forthcoming.
50 years later, the LSU Cold Case project reviewed over 2,700 FBI files and interviewed dozens of witnesses to retell the story of what happened that day. The students uncovered new information about the FBI investigation into the shooting and the suspects. As a result of the reporting, the names of the deputy suspects were revealed and some of the deputies on the scene that day, including two suspects, were interviewed.
Following the LSU Cold Case series on the shootings, which ran in publications statewide and on media sites, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards apologized on behalf of the state to the victims’ families and the protestors. The governor told the student reporters that he read the stories in the series and learned for the first time the details of the tragedy.