Dr Doris Derby was born into the struggle for civil rights. Her grandmother was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1910s, and her father was a civil rights activist. She moved from New York to segregated Mississippi in August 1963 after participating in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King had given his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
In the nine years she was there, she worked with the SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) at voter registration and literacy programmes, and co-founded the Free Southern Theatre. Her photographs and recollections are collected in a new photo book, A Civil Rights Journey, published by MACK.
At this time, civil rights activists in the state were being threatened and murdered by local whites, and there was widespread poverty among Black people. “In the Mississippi Delta, like all the southern states, extreme control was exerted through the plantations, sharecropping, the violent tactics of the Klan, and the activities of complicit state and local government officials,” Derby writes in A Civil Rights Journey.
“The system was set up to monitor and oversee the slaves, even though slavery had been outlawed. These people were brutal and they had the same mindset as the overseers. The system had evolved, but the mindset was the same.”
During her time in the movement, she photographed a number of pivotal moments, such as the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr, the 1969 Woodstock festival and the Jackson State University shooting. Yet her most enduring work are the scenes of everyday life under white supremacy – the hardship and hope embedded in mundane moments.
“I was accustomed to spending time with children, looking at the ways they interacted with one another, and photographing them and their environments came naturally to me,” she writes. Her sensitive portraits of sharecroppers’ children, working in the fields or resting in sparse, wooden homes, are a testament to her skill at finding a lightness and empathy in heavy political contexts.
Although a number of prominent activists feature in her archive, her work is profoundly collective in spirit. It highlights the breadth of people it took to create a strong movement, from nurses to filmmakers to craftspeople to mayors. The movement also allowed people opportunities beyond the confines of their upbringing. “Fannie Lou Hamer was a sharecropper who became involved in the movement as a very active civil rights worker,” Derby writes. “She was a powerful speaker and singer … She recruited and influenced many people to be active in the movement for civil rights.”
Activism always came with a cost. “[Hamer] got into a lot of trouble with the white folks through her political activities,” Derby recalls. “At one time she had to have a medical procedure and they sterilised her while she was in the hospital. She was severely beaten while taking people to register to vote. Her health never fully recovered. She persevered despite the violence. She continued to obtain her rights as an American citizen and strove for self-government for all Americans.”
Derby left Mississippi in 1972, going on to earn a PhD and have a successful career as an academic and photographer. Fifty years later, she sees echoes of the past, just as back in the 1960s she saw echoes of slavery still present long after abolition. “Now is a continuation of then,” she writes. “We are seeing repeats today of what we saw back then, like voter suppression and police brutality. When you make strides, the enemy takes steps to block your achievements and you must do something else.”
A Civil Rights Journey by Doris Derby is available now from MACK
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