Doris Derby – A Civil Rights Journey

Doris A. Derby was, by all accounts, a formidable person. Her credentials include becoming a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) at sixteen, being a student activist at university, and ultimately going down to Mississippi by special request of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to develop an adult literacy programme at Tougaloo College. This proved to be the starting point of her extensive  involvement with the civil rights movement in the Magnolia State. She left after nine years to obtain an MA and PhD from the University of Illinois, then became Founding Director of African American Student Services and Programs at Georgia State University, and finally retired as Adjunct Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology. And now her photography is receiving some modest attention in the UK, through her inclusion in the We Will Walk – Art and Resistance in the American South exhibition at the Turner Contemporary in 2020, and the monograph A Civil Rights Journey, published by MACK in the latter half of 2021.

A Civil Rights Journey appears to offer us something novel: an inside view of the civil rights movement in Mississippi in the 1960s by a black female activist living and working there.

A Civil Rights Journey appears to offer us something novel: an inside view of the civil rights movement in Mississippi in the 1960s by a black female activist living and working there. As part of my own research into American documentary photographers, I have become particularly attuned to the regularity with which image-makers are being positioned as insiders of the communities they portray, and how this is ‘A Good Thing.’ And thus, when researching Derby for the purpose of this review, I read in various places and spaces that her photographs focused on the intimate and private moments of daily life in the Deep South, and that her lens was mostly trained onto women and children. More importantly, I was assured that her pictures captured the other side to the civil rights movement: the literacy programs, the healthcare initiatives, the craft workshops, the theatre productions, the farming cooperatives. Not only that, her photographs had been used on posters, brochures, and leaflets aimed at the black community in the Deep South to become involved in every aspect in the fight for racial equality, running the gamut from registering to vote to participating in community theatre to taking part in math classes. Derby’s pictures thus apparently served as a contrast to the prevailing front page images of protests, marches, demonstrations, murders and funerals of civil rights activists.

Given that the pictures I am familiar with from the civil rights movement are very much produced by white male photojournalists – people such as Dan Budnik, Steve Shapiro, and Bob Adelman – and given that the photographs that spring to mind are very much those of the March from Selma to Montgomery, of protesters being set upon by water cannons, dogs and police in Birmingham, AL, of sit-ins in Jackson, MS that are about to turn violent, of neatly dressed students heckled by their white peers as they attempt to integrate schools in Little Rock, AR, and, naturally, of Martin Luther King’s famous speech in Washington, D.C., the premise for Derby’s work seemed promising. I was especially keen to see more of the other side to the civil rights movement, the side already hinted at above, the side I will confess to know very little about.

A Civil Rights Journey certainly delivers in that regard. We are provided with well sequenced and lovely little vignettes of audience members and actors participating in community theatre, of children receiving much needed health checks, of grown-ups deep in concentration during adult literacy classes, of elders quilting, sewing and weaving baskets for the various handcraft cooperatives. The images within these sections are Derby’s best. They contain beautiful portraits of strong women getting on with the job at hand. They also show the positive impact of modern healthcare and educational facilities being extended to a population previously denied access. We see progress being made despite the opposition of the white southern population as highlighted in the accompanying oral history. We also see the hitherto uncelebrated and rather mundane reality of much of the civil rights movement, full of meetings with agendas and notes, and bored attendees slouching in their office chairs. These images are indeed a welcome counterpoint to the visual drama of the fight for racial equality that we are familiar with. Finally, we are offered an insight into daily life for black farmers and sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta, as well as for the urban black population of Jackson, MS. Visually, these sections are less exciting. Not only does the order of the photographs make less sense as they seem rather randomly dispersed throughout the book, but the pictures themselves seem derivative. The rural images especially are highly reminiscent of those produced by Jack Delano in Greene County, GA in the 1930s and 1940s under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration.  


Regardless of their strengths and weaknesses, it is almost as if all those images, all those vignettes were not considered sufficient by themselves. One almost suspects the publisher of bottling it, of at the last minute demanding photographs of the civil rights movement that the average, presumably white, viewer can relate to. And so we have the almost obligatory portraits of civil rights luminaries such as Charles Evers (brother of Medgar), Muhammad Ali, the Reverend Al Sharpton, Stokely Carmichael, Alice Walker, James Brown, Jesse Jackson, and Amiri Baraka. And so we have the almost mandatory photographs of the funeral procession of Martin Luther King, Jr. taking place in Atlanta, GA, despite the focus of the book being the civil rights movement in Mississippi. And finally, we are presented with the almost compulsory images of protests, murders and funerals of activists after all, this time the result of police brutality at Jackson State University. These pictures are then closely followed by captures of the aftermath of various police raids and shots fired in other locales in the Deep South.

And whilst these photographs certainly highlight the acute danger of participating in the fight for racial equality in the Deep South, we actually do not need them here. The average viewer will be familiar with similar images published elsewhere. And if the publisher wanted to hammer home the peril of being a black person daring to live an equal and integrated life in the Deep South, s/he could have opted for the two hard-hitting, but visually rather different pictures that were included in Derby’s self-published endeavour Poetagraphy: Artistic Reflections on a Mississippi Lifeline in Words and Images: 1963-1972. One photograph is a close-up of a white-painted concrete road block stating ‘KKK: Enlist Now,’ a shot which is stunning in its simplicity, its message chilling in its implication. The other image documents a menacing police cordon seen at some distance from the camera, complete with patrol cars and motor bikes, and burly white officers sporting dark aviators. Viewing the picture, we can almost taste the anxiety of the photographer in daring not to tread any closer.

More significantly, the inclusion of the usual image suspects in this publication diminishes the impact of the positive photographs documenting the other, equally important, side to the fight for racial equality. It overshadows these wonderful pictures of the grassroots initiatives and truly innovative educational, cultural and healthcare programmes – such as Head Start and story circles – for which the civil rights movement should be better known for as well as all those front page stories. This ties in with another missed opportunity, that is, the absence within the publication of facsimiles of those leaflets, brochures and posters Derby’s work initially was used for. Syd Shelton’s Rock Against Racism publication, for example, does a sterling job of highlighting both Shelton’s qualities as a photographer – by offering high quality reproductions of his individual images – as well as showing how his pictures were used in the so-called Temporary Hoardings, the zines produced by the RAR movement to advertise its activities and standpoints. This goes hand in hand with the lack of genuine attention paid to Southern Media, Inc., the civil rights vehicle through which Derby seriously started taking photographs. That is to say, the oral history accompanying the pictures in the book takes the reader on a journey of all the civil rights activities that Derby has been involved in during her time in Mississippi, with cursory expositions on the goals and activities of each of these grassroots organisations. Southern Media, Inc. gets mentioned quite a few times, but the text fails to make clear exactly how Derby’s personal photographic practice intersects with the images presumably shot ‘on commission.’ Neither is this highlighted in any way through specific design choices or other visual means. This seems to be a consequence of attempting to position Derby as an artist-author rather than a photographer-activist employed to serve a specific agenda.

… the inclusion of the usual image suspects in this publication diminishes the impact of the positive photographs documenting the other, equally important, side to the fight for racial equality.

The lack of considered attention to this media outfit is a significant omission, however. Scott L. Matthews, in his publication Capturing the South, dedicates a chapter to the photographic activities of the SNCC in Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama. More specifically, he traces how Danny Lyon – white, male, northern – became the first photographer hired by the organisation in 1962. Lyon’s photographs were apparently sent out to the press to counteract the front page misrepresentation of the civil rights movement. This is reminiscent of how Derby’s work is being positioned. Similarly, Lyon’s images were also used in promotional material. Matthews, however, shows how Lyon in his images strongly mythologised and elevated civil rights activists, and romanticised the rural black population and the region at large as a pastoral, noble and authentic community.

More importantly, Matthews traces how, in fact, in the early 1960s all photographic work for the SNCC was conducted by non-black, non-southern photographers. It was only later – with the establishment of media vehicles such as SNCC Photo and the Southern Documentary Project, and the general embrace of black power and black nationalism by the SNCC – that black photographers were finally charged with the representation of the movement as well as the region and its black population. As a result, according to Matthews, the photographs shifted away from mythologising the movement’s leaders to portraying anonymous rural southerners instead, albeit in a similarly romantic fashion. In addition, the photographs started to highlight black beauty and black identity specifically. Knowing this context is critical to evaluating not only Derby’s photographs, but also the final edit that appears in A Civil Rights Journey. And this is where Derby’s self-published Poetagraphy offers an interesting counterpoint, as it includes quite a few landscape photographs and close-ups of nature alongside those photographs of the rural black population and the events surrounding the shooting at Jackson State University. 

Derby’s voice in A Civil Rights Journey feels somewhat muted, patient and weary, especially in comparison to the proud, defiant, hopeful, lyrical, sometimes lonesome and mournful tone struck in the poems in her self-published Poetagraphy.

Which ultimately brings me to the problematic nature of the oral history within A Civil RIght’s Journey. From the back page we learn that the text within is an edit of conversations between Derby and Hannah Collins, one of the curators of the aforementioned exhibition at the Turner Contemporary. The narrative seems to focus on succinctly familiarising the reader with the civil rights movement in all its guises and acronyms in Mississippi in the 1960s, explaining the rationale behind each of the various educational, healthcare and cultural initiatives, and offering thumbnail histories of key individuals within the movement, specifically highlighting their struggles and sacrifices. The final text presented to the reader seems very much geared towards an audience unfamiliar with any of this, without providing the contextual and emotional depth it deserves. Given Derby’s academic credentials, I am curious as to why this oral history format was chosen over the photographer writing a self-reflective text on her photographic and activist practice alongside a more solid historical analysis of the civil rights movement in all its forms as well as the nature of segregation, Jim Crow and poverty in the Deep South by someone like, say,  the aforementioned Scott L. Matthews. The unfortunate result is that Derby’s voice in A Civil Rights Journey feels somewhat muted, patient and weary, especially in comparison to the proud, defiant, hopeful, lyrical, sometimes lonesome and mournful tone struck in the poems in her self-published Poetagraphy:

I look through the windows of segregation
Though the bars seem thick and strong
I can plainly see a world beyond, with some
Who no longer agree with such wrong.
I know that mankind all over
Will cry out against such suffering.
Such a world forever cannot be ignoring
The black man and woman’s dignity.

Doris Derby
MACK, 2021

Text ©Karin Bareman; Images ©Doris Derby/MACK