BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) — Governor John Bel Edwards signed a formal letter of apology to the families of the two Southern University students who were killed during a peaceful protest on campus 50 years ago.
“Fifty years after the senseless tragedy of November 16, 1972, when officers wielding the power and authority of the state of Louisiana unjustly killed Leonard Brown and Denver Smith, it is time to try to make amends,” said Gov. Edwards.
“I think it’s emotional. It’s been an emotional day,” said Denver Terrance, Denver Smith’s nephew.
Denver Smith was just 20 years old when he was killed alongside Leonard Brown. 50 years later, is his death anniversary, and Terrance says the pain is still there.
“The opportunity that we had for justice 40, 50 years ago has passed, but there’s still opportunity for restorative justice. And I think that’s something that we need to work towards,” said Terrance.
Governor John Bel Edwards is the first governor to publicly apologize for the tragedy. He also signed a proclamation formalizing the apology. Edwards acknowledged the injustices that followed the protest.
“I think it’s all very powerful. Again, we can all learn from it and never go back to those days again here in Louisiana or anywhere else,” he said.
Brown and Smith were protesting against the disparity of educational opportunities in Louisiana. The state then banned the students who were protesting from campus.
“The Louisiana State Board of Education unjustly and unduly punished nine student leaders involved in that protest, who comprised the leadership of Students United at Southern University,” said Edwards.
LSU journalism professor Christopher Drew leads the Cold Case Project on campus. Records show Smith and Brown were killed after tear gas was used by law enforcement. They have narrowed down the shooter to three deputies. But, five decades later, no one has been charged with pulling the trigger.
“They really ended up with 2 to 3 lead suspects but could never get enough proof that they could say this is the one who did it,” said Drew. “I never quite dreamed it would end up where the governor would come and apologize on behalf of the state.”
As for the families, they promise to continue their advocacy.
“We’re doing the work that we can, within ourselves,” said Terrance. “And that’s to keep his name alive and also to raise funds for young scholars and allow them to complete their dream, which is something my uncle and Mr. Brown weren’t able to do.”