Southern University 1972 protest. Bottom left, Paul Shivers awaiting trial. Far right, Charlane Hadnott, an organizer of Students United. Middle photo of student demonstration. The colored photo is the 1972-73 yearbook cover. Photos courtesy of Southern University's 1972-73 yearbook.

Southern University’s 50-year ban of 1972 student protestors remains

Southern University was one of the most prominent HBCUs in 1972. It lost its luster when it shuttered student protests that ended in the death of two coed demonstrators and the expulsion of others. That injunction still stands.

On Tuesday, Southern University and A&M College enters a dark period in its history. It is the fiftieth year that the national guards, state police and Baton Rouge sheriffs stormed the campus to descend upon students who had been demonstrating for weeks. At some point, law enforcement began throwing cans of tear gas at students. Shortly thereafter, shots rang out in two different places hitting four students, two were killed: Denver Smith and Leonard Brown. 

Multiple student leaders were arrested and many more involved were permanently expelled from their studies at the historically Black university. The stain of those days still carries a stench on the school’s history.

Recent news reported that the Southern University Board of Supervisors voted to remove the temporary court-ordered ban placed on students five decades ago. While the board decided to lift the injunction, the injunction still remains. A source related to the case explained to Ark Republic that the ban was issued through the courts, thus it must be handled in a litigious matter.

My father, Paul Shivers, a member of the Student United group who protested at the time, was one of the students arrested and expelled. He was five months from graduating and an NFL prospect.

“There were so many students whose lives were disarranged, we still don’t know all who were impacted,” he said.

To him, the ban is obsolete; especially since he had three children attend Southern University years later. My oldest sibling, Matito Ki’Abayomi, was an infant when police officers showed up at my parent’s apartment late at night to arrest my father for his involvement. Law enforcement told my mother that they were evicted from the school’s family apartment and that she had a couple of hours to pack and leave. So she scooped up my brother who was about seven months old and walked out of the flat in the middle of the night.

Without housing, my mom “stole sleep” to finish school months later. When she did graduate in the spring of 1973, campus police officers surrounded my father with guns in refusal of him attending her graduation ceremony. Indeed, the ban was very palpable.

Regardless, when my brother was of college-age, he too attended Southern University. Plus, we visited the campus when I was a girl, and my parents helped my siblings settle into their dorms. Today, my parents are active members of the Los Angeles chapter alumni.

A reckoning

Body of Southern University student shot and killed in protest. November 16, 1972. Photo credit: Southern University yearbook

That said, my family’s historical ties to this trauma are one of many narratives that have been buried in years of the university’s refusal to repair the damage it did to students who were protesting corruption by the university administration and a whole host of other issues.

One main pursuit is unveiling who fired shots at students when a no-live ammunition order was given at the time of protests. Several sources have been named—from Baton Rouge sheriffs to state police. Due to many of the students leaving the area and not a full account recorded, there are many holes left to be filled in the story.

Yet and still, five decades later, efforts for justice continue. At Louisiana State University’s law school, they started a cold case project investigating unsolved Civil Rights murders. While interrogating the Brown and Smith murders they started a collaboration with Prof. Angela A. Allen-Bell, a Southern University law professor. Her assistant, Brittany Dunn has been also working on the case as well as speaking with student leaders who were impacted by the tragedy, including my father. Dunn is a third year Southern University law student.

“This opportunity is the starting point for:  (1) narrative change; (2) truth-telling; and, (3) reparations,” wrote Allen-Bell and Dunn in an article exploring how Southern University was one of several high-profile HBCUs that enacted brutal and tragic measures against protesting students.

| Read: The pain, power and price of protest: Athletes and activism, part 1

In their writings, Allen-Bell and Dunn point to several factions involved in creating an anti-student sentiment that led to campus killings and mass suspensions. Included in the culpability with Southern University’s Black administrators who cosigned and covered up the violent actions towards students is the “all-white boards” that sanctioned the response by law enforcement. 

Allen-Bell and Dunn also cited that the FBI had a role in the issue. FBI documents show they used a counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO to spy on students and plant informants as some of the tactics.

For Southern University, their efforts to quell 1972 protests was the second time they took extreme measures. This also happened in 1960 when administrators expelled 16 students involved in Civil Rights demonstrations in Baton Rouge. The students were also banned from enrolling into the other state HBCU, Grambling State University. 

Those students were given honorary degrees in 2004, but their participation laid important legal groundwork. In a Diverse: Issues in Higher Education article, it explained that the students contributed to influencing a 1961 Supreme Court decision “outlawing racial segregation in privately owned restaurants.”

This year, Southern University, like it has done in the past, has put together a commemorative event. Yet, Allen-Bell and Dunn push for a day that is more than a “‘hashtag,’ a ‘photo-op’ or a ‘remembrance’.” Separate from Southern University, all the while, working with the NAACP, Allen-Bell and her Civil Rights and Law & Racism students organized an event described in a NAACP press release as more of “racial healing and truth telling” to “restorative and transitional justice effort … to correct” past harms. 

The event is titled, “A Cold Case Investigation: Episode 50. On this 50th Anniversary of the Deaths of SU Students Denver Smith & Leonard Brown, We Gather to Explore Social Context.” It takes place on Tuesday, 6pm, at the Old State Capitol building located at 100 North Boulevard in Baton Rouge.

Southern University Protest, November 1972: Photo credit: Southern University yearbook

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