Forty-five years after two Southern University students were shot dead by police who had been sent in quash weeks of demonstrations on the school’s Baton Rouge campus — which included occupation of the university president’s office — the 1972 incident is once more getting attention.
The documentary “Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities” will make its broadcast premiere Monday night (Feb. 19) on PBS — and online a day later — as part of the series “Independent Lens.” In addition to starting with a drum cadence by the Southern University drum corps, the 85-minute film features a 10-minute segment on the Southern shootings, which are brought to life through interviews, photos and video — and which vividly, and poignantly, illustrate the on-campus tumult at HBCUs in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
“They were exercising their constitutional rights. And they get killed for it. They die,” former student Michael Cato says in the film of the slain students. “Nobody sent their child to school to die. It shouldn’t have happened.”
The Southern shootings took place Nov. 16, 1972, after weeks of demonstrations by students protesting inadequate services. When the students marched on University President Leon Netterville’s office, Gov. Edwin Edwards sent 300 police officers in to break up the demonstrations.
It was during the subsequent confrontation that a still-unidentified officer fired a shotgun at students in violation of orders. When the smoke cleared, two 20-year-old students — Leonard Brown and Denver Smith — were dead.
No one was ever charged in their deaths. Edwards, who is interviewed in “Tell Them We Are Rising,” blamed the students, saying their actions were a “trigger” for the police response.
In 2017, the Southern University System board’s academic affairs committee voted to award Brown and Smith posthumous degrees.
While the Southern story — which is begins at the film’s 59:38 mark — is undeniably dramatic, it’s only one part of the much larger HCBU story, the evolution of which co-directors Stanley Nelson (“Black Panthers,” “Freedom Riders”) and Marco Williams (“Black Fives,” “From Harlem to Harvard”) track in their film through interviews with historians and HBCU graduates, as well as a wealth of archival images.
While it features decidedly dark moments like the Southern shootings, it also boasts a sense of celebration and hope. What Nelson and Williams end up with is a portrait of a college system that has for decades served as an incubator of black thought and the nurturer of black thinkers from Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois to Oprah Winfrey and Spike Lee.
“My parents were the product of HBCUs. For generations, there was no other place our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents could go to school,” Nelson said. “I set out to tell a story of Americans who refused to be denied a higher education and — in their resistance — created a set of institutions that would influence and shape the landscape of the country for centuries to come. If education is a cornerstone of society, then HBCUs are the groundwork for advancing justice in America.”
“Tell Them We Are Rising” airs at 8 p.m. CT as part of the PBS series “Independent Lens” and begins streaming a day later on the PBS website.