Confession: I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about what it means for me to be turning 50 years old this year. But my time is better spent thinking about what was going on 50 years ago. In 1972, the path to Roe v. Wade was unfolding, including a leaked memo about the case that was written by Justice William O. Douglas in June, and a second round of oral arguments in October of that year. In 1972, both Philadelphia and London had their first gay-pride marches, a few years after New York. Johnnie Tillmon, a Black woman who was the president of the National Welfare Rights Organization, published her famous essay “Welfare Is a Women’s Issue” in Ms. magazine. Also in 1972, the National Black Political Convention gathered in Gary, Indiana, with delegates from a wide range of political positions, to pursue an agenda for Black Americans. And of course, the nation was in the throes of the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement. It was a big, messy, beautiful, and complicated year.
But this week I learned about a lesser-known event of 1972. Students were protesting on the campus of a historically Black state university, Southern, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Nearly 20 years after Brown v. Board of Education, public education remained unequal, and deliberately so. The all-white Louisiana State Board of Education still functioned with Jim Crow sensibilities. Southern students wanted better campus conditions; they wanted courses in African American studies and more Black people on the board of trustees. They also wanted more of the faculty to advocate for them rather than adhering to the mandates of the state. Their organization, Students United, mobilized effectively and held protests on campus for weeks. The state took notice.
On November 16, police officers and sheriff’s deputies arrived on campus in riot gear, demanding that the students disperse. They fired tear gas into the group. Then one of the officers fired a gun. He killed two 20-year-olds, Denver Smith and Leonard Brown. News reports of the time claimed that only tear gas was used, but that was demonstrably untrue.
Stanley Nelson’s documentary about HBCUs, Tell Them We Are Rising, documents the story of these events in heartbreaking and profound fashion. I would also recommend Martha Biondi’s The Black Revolution on Campus and Ibram X. Kendi’s The Black Campus Movement for anyone interested in these events and their context. But what I’m thinking about here is how much the backlash against the gains of the mid-20th-century social movements has relied upon a distortion of principles. Those who do not believe in social justice make specious claims that they are the ones being excluded and mistreated.
In this case, two young people exercising their right to political speech at a public institution were killed by the state. It was a criminal violation of First Amendment rights. These weren’t the only college students murdered for political speech in the movement—see the killings at Jackson State University, South Carolina State University and Kent State, for example. And yet now we live in an era in which the principles those students were fighting for are described as oppressive and exclusionary. We live in an era in which student protesters who yell at speakers holding bigoted views are described as engaging in the most egregious violation of the First Amendment. We know that this is untrue.
Likewise, even the most modest efforts to remedy the continued reality of separate and unequal education for Black children are described as a form of racial discrimination against white students. Without remedy, the status quo is preserved: still separate, still unequal. But apparently affirmative action is discrimination.
And many of those who want to force others to carry a pregnancy to term are the same ones who describe mask mandates as unconstitutional control of their bodies. I could go on and on with these examples.
I’m hardly the first to say it, but it bears repeating, often. The claims to equality and full civic and social participation for all people have been perverted and colonized by powerful forces in order to maintain the status quo and all its hierarchies. In addition to our various forms of protest and dissent, we who believe in freedom must reclaim ownership of the words of struggle. We cannot accept their distortion, and history teaches us why. As the mother of two opinionated and politically impassioned Black youth, I know that their First Amendment rights matter a great deal. They speak the language of freedom. So do I.
No one was ever punished for the deaths of Leonard Brown and Denver Smith.