Started from the Bottom Now We’re Here: Commemorating the Southern 16

Painted by Toufeeq Muhammad.
Painted by Toufeeq Muhammad.



Last Thursday ,March 28th ,  while  I was driving  downtown Drake’s “Started from the Bottom” came on the radio. It is one of the top songs in the country, but I thought about the relevenence the song might have to my destination. One particular part of the song stuck out to me:

started from the bottom/now we’re here/started from the bottom now we’re here/started from the bottom now my whole team here/… boys will  tell stories bout the men/”

In this hit song the rapper chronicles the strugles he went through to rise to success. This was the soundtrack that accompanied my drive to the Kress gallery where Southern students were being honored.

As I drove that song came on a second time and that same part stuck out to me. I continued to think about where I was heading.The “Honoring Our Past” luncheon ,and the only thing I knew about the event prior to attending was that Southern Alumni would be honored for their efforts in the civil rights movement.

After listening to the song and thinking about my agenda it hit me:

When you’re a Southern student most expect you to appreciate Southern’s hitstory, but through our tenure at the university we are rarely given an explanation of how Southern students helped African Americans “start out from the bottom and make here”.

Dr. Rachel Emauel,Southern University School of Law Professor, said she has traveled throughout the country and even Louisiana residents are unware of the contribuitons their state made to the civil rights movement. She has talked with other documentary filmakers and journalist who said ensuring the rest of the country understands the value of the contributions made by Lousiana to the civil rights movements starts with educating Louisiana reisents.

This is one of the reason that inspired her to produce “Taking a Seat for Justice”.

On March 28th 1960 seven Southern Univiersity students entred the S.E. Kress Building and sat down at the “whites only” lunch counter. After refusing to move to “colored” section the police were called and arrived with the press.

The seven students were placed under arrest for disturbing the peace. After spending six hours in jail they were released . The next day nine more students held another sit-in at a different downtown Baton Rouge restaraunt. Those students were also arrested and two days later on March 30th the all 16 students ,who participated in the sit-ins, were expelled from Southern from Southern.

Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and NAACP La. Attorney A.P. Tureaud represented the group before the La. Supreme Court where they lost. In Decemeber of 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the veridict.

Taking a Seat For Justice” chronicles what life was like for the 16 demonstraters following their expullsion from Southern and the effects it had , on the univeristy, the state, and the country.

The documenatry and it’s production resprsents what we are capable of doing at Southern University as leaders and everytime you this film I look it at with a new appreation for the University and it’s students” said Dr. James Llorens , Southern Univeristy Chancellor  

On May 14, 2004 13 of the Southern 16 recieved honorary bachelor’s degrees in the majors they were studying at the time of their expulsion.

Then I realized I was watching this documentary in the exact same building those seven students demonstrated in 53 years ago. If it wasn’t for those alumni who came before me, I might not have been able to go sit and enjoy lunch in the very same Kress Building 53 years later.

The Kress Building. Downtown Baton Rouge.
The Kress Building. Downtown Baton Rouge.

The area where the gallery is today the same area the sit-in took place and motivated us to commemorate the students and as a younger generation when we discover history we should make it our mission to pass it on.” said Tray Turner, Kress Gallery Curator.

After taking in the fact that I was in a building where history was made, I was also in the presence of history being created by Artist Toufeeq Muhammad. Muhammad unveiled  The Southern Seven a painting  commemorating the student’s efforts to bring equality to Louisiana.

 I hope people take three things from this painting: curiosity to do the research on the civil rights movement in Louisiana , the impact Southern has had on Baton Rouge, and how art can be a catalyst for change” said Muhammad.

Feeq said he was made aware of Southern’s role in the civil rights movement after attending another art gallery showcasing African American Art. He chose to use the style Abstract Cubism because it that style not only a progressive style but has African origins also. 

Southern University Chancellor James Llorens and Artist Taufeeq Muhammad
Southern University Chancellor James Llorens and Artist Taufeeq Muhammad

I have always had a deep love and appreciation for Southern, but now I have such a clear understanding of how my alma mater ,and the fearless students who came before me,helped shape our country that love and appreciation now runs deeper than I thought  possible.