In late August 1963, just after the assassination of Medgar Evers and the March on Washington, the photographer, organizer, and teacher Doris Derby went to Mississippi. Over the following nine years, Derby traveled between Jackson and the state’s rural areas with her camera, documenting and participating in the southern Civil Rights Movement. Amid a climate of extreme inequality, hostility, and violence, Derby’s sensitive black and white photos emanate strength, dignity, and compassion. Her work captures Black people’s everyday struggles for survival and their growing political action for a better future.
A Civil Rights Journey (MACK) is a powerful and moving testament to Derby’s years in the American South. The book presents more than 110 pictures from Derby’s archive, offering a rich panorama of the key people and places behind the movement in Mississippi, but also in Georgia, South Carolina, and Louisiana, where Derby also worked. Now 82, Derby is a retired anthropology professor in Georgia.
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Renowned international figures like Muhammed Ali, Jesse Jackson, James Brown, and Stokely Carmichael appear in Derby’s pictures, as well as key activists like Alice Walker and Fannie Lou Hamer. But mostly, her lens is trained on sharecroppers, churchgoers, and students, who, despite crushing poverty, segregation, and discrimination, become activists, demonstrators, and voters. Derby records momentous events like Martin Luther King Junior’s funeral procession and the 1968 National Democratic Convention, but she also photographs local farmers’ cooperative meetings and county voting halls.
Derby didn’t just chronicle the movement with her camera; she also actively contributed to its causes. The granddaughter of one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Derby came from a family dedicated to racial equality. She was a member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, and despite great risks to her physical safety, she campaigned for voting rights during her time in the South. She also co-founded the Free Southern Theater and Southern Media Inc, a documentary photography and film group that partnered with journalists from Mississippi and beyond.
Likewise, Derby helped to develop Mississippi Head Start, a public education program for preschool children. Head Start and Freedom Schools were especially crucial for rural children, whose farm work frequently eclipsed their academic opportunities. However, these and other efforts were threatened by local vigilantes, whose attacks often went unpunished by state and local officials. Derby recalls that other activists were beaten, forcibly sterilized, and even killed because of their work. “There was a significant danger of being harmed or killed by whites who did not want the civil rights initiatives to succeed,” Derby writes in the book, noting that “rifles were kept at the Head Start Center in case of an attack.”
Some of Derby’s most affecting images are from the Jackson State University Shooting. Around midnight on May 15, 1970, city and state police forces opened fire on a group of student protestors, killing two and injuring dozens more. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, but no one was ever held responsible for the attack. Derby’s photos show the aftermath of the assault. In an image of the solidarity funeral procession for one of the victims, students walk past the facade of a women’s dormitory peppered with hundreds of bullet holes and shattered glass. Another group of students raise their fists behind a sign that reads “College campuses: slaughterhouse for students.” Though the Mississippi attack occurred only 11 days after the Kent State shootings, they are much less well known.
Derby’s searing and intimate photos capture a crucial moment in history, but they aren’t trapped in the past. In fact, her photos feel especially poignant when seen from today’s fraught political climate. “Now is a continuation of then. We are seeing repeats today of what we saw back then, like voter suppression and police brutality,” Derby warns. “The circumstances are such that young people need to continue what was done because history can revert at any time.”
A Civil Rights Journey by Doris Derby is published by MACK.