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‘We were documenting for history’ – an interview with Civil Rights photographer Doris Derby

10 July 2020

In 1963, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Doris Derby – who was born and raised in the Bronx – moved to Mississippi, where she was active as an organiser, educator and photographer. Her photographic documents of this era are currently on view in an exhibition at Turner Contemporary (reopening 22 July). Derby talks to Gabrielle Schwarz about a lifetime spent fighting for racial justice – and the role that images can play in this struggle. 

You’ve had so many different roles over your life, as an educator, an anthropologist, as an activist, as a photographer and an artist. Do you see them as interconnected?
Yes. My life is very interconnected, from my early days. My experiences in elementary school, in my family and educational and community, have always been driving forces, all interconnected, leading to what I would do – and I have done it in a lot of different ways.

When I was in elementary school, we lived in a predominantly white community [in the Bronx]. The multi-ethnic people were in a minority, but it was enough for me to have a blend of experiences. I didn’t have any black teachers up until fourth or fifth grade, and [then] it was only one black teacher. I realised that there was something missing here: because my family was very strong on oral history, of our family history, and my father was a photographer, and he gave my sister and me our cameras when we were in fourth or fifth grade – little brownie cameras – and so we saw him taking pictures. But I realised that I didn’t see pictures of black people or other people besides white people, in my textbooks or in movies. Every week on Saturday afternoon my girlfriends and I would go to the movies. We were always looking to see, was there a black person in any part of the movie? And we didn’t see them very often. And when we did, it wasn’t necessarily a positive image but it was an image, like you see in Tarzan or jungle or Egyptian movies. I realised that there was a deficit. I realised that because my grandparents kept scrapbooks with very positive pictures, and articles about things that happened in their lifetimes, when they were growing up – I wondered where is that kind of history in my textbooks, and why is there only one black teacher?

My mother encouraged me and my sister to be in the arts. In junior high I studied African dance and won a scholarship to study African dance [through the Katherine Dunham workshop series]. I went on that creative path. I decided that I want to learn more about people of colour as well as do something to fill the gap [in representation]. And I started painting: paintings of black people doing different things, related to the struggle for identity, in reflection of the African culture and in reflection of Caribbean culture. I had also started to go to outdoor exhibits by African American artists in Harlem, associating with those artists, and getting a broader picture of different types of painting. We had Tom Feelings, Ernest Critchlow, Roy De Carava, the photographer, he was someone who influenced me, Gordon Parks and a lot of the painters from the Harlem Renaissance. I got to know them and their various artistic styles. But I always wanted to paint people, and my environment. I wanted to record and document the beauty of African and African American culture and our contribution to the world.

Your work in photography began some time later, after you’d been recruited to work in Mississippi by the SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] in the early 1960s. What kinds of activities were you involved in?
There were different kinds of educational programmes that I was involved with. Formally, I went to work with SNCC as a field secretary and part of that responsibility was to be involved in developing literacy materials for adults in order to prepare them to register to vote and to be able to vote. After 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was signed, the funding we had to work on the initial literacy project was not renewed. That was when the first Head Start programme in America started, in Mississippi, the summer of 1965. I was asked to be a teacher trainer and Head Resource Teacher in two different Head Start programmes consecutively. Around the end of 1966 was when I started to get involved with Southern Media, Inc. That’s when I started taking photographs on a consistent basis.

You have to bear in mind that in the Civil Rights Movement in the black community during segregation you did not necessarily have the standard kinds of institutions. We had to remake them because standard institutional thought was segregated and controlled by the white power structure. We had to do other things. And there wasn’t a lot of money to do things, so you had to see how you could create and build with people power, fundraising and volunteers from outside of the state, and new ideas.

L.C. Dorsey, a Civil Rights worker, at the North Bolivar County Farm Vegetable Cooperative, Mississippi (1968), Doris Derby.

Civil Rights worker L.C. Dorsey at the North Bolivar County Farm Vegetable Cooperative, Mississippi (1968), Doris Derby. Photo: © Doris A. Derby

How did you go about choosing your subjects for Southern Media, Inc. – and did you have a particular audience in mind?
I didn’t really think of my photography as [having] subjects, which I think of as being posed, that are a static thing. That’s not what it was: our photographers, with Southern Media, were a part of the community, capturing the societal changes that were occurring. The main photographers who were there, we were working in Civil Rights, and we were taking pictures of what people were doing at the time: showing their initiatives. We depicted the people who were making great things happen, who were also the people that terrible things were happening to. We wanted to show the real life, the life that was not static but was a mix of the old – what they were currently feeling, and doing – and the new challenges that were coming up.

In terms of distribution, Southern Media, Inc was not a company that was interested in publishing. We weren’t trying to be individuals and get our ‘pictures’. We were there to document – the guys who started Southern Media wanted to make films and photographs for their community, primarily, to document what was happening in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, and to train young people to record and to be able to document change. We were providing photographs for the community to use in ways that they wanted to, like posters and campaign photographs or brochures, film strips, and then also photographs and films for educational purposes, organising purposes. We also did provide magazines and newspapers with photographs if they asked us.

Many of your photographs from this time feel very joyful – full of positive energy and activity – or otherwise depict everyday scenes, quite removed from the Civil Rights protests and all the violence the black community was experiencing. Can you talk about your decision to show this side of life at the time?
These were the people who were the basis of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. It’s men, it’s women, and it’s children who are exercising and pursuing their rights and their responsibilities to themselves, their family, community and country. These pursuits took many forms – education initiatives on all levels, economic development, voter education, community development, healthcare initiatives, cultural and artistic expression, protest and peaceful demonstrations against injustice. Many Civil Rights adult activists were military veterans who had fought abroad for their country’s protection against tyranny. Upon their return they fought against the tyranny of racism and segregation in their home state. Ordinary people provided food, protection and shelter to Civil Rights volunteers. They risked their lives and their livelihoods trying to register to vote because white supremacists did not want black citizens to gain voting or economic power.

The people reflected in our photographs, we wanted viewers to see them as American citizens who wanted equality, justice and freedom for all regardless of race, creed or colour. What the media depicted was different depending on the type of media, whether it was white- or black-based or whether it was based in state or out of state. Some portrayed people involved in Civil Rights as protesters or bad guys, depending on which newspaper was reporting. This was for me a form of documentation: we were documenting for history, to show what people were doing to fight in the struggle, to bring about equality, to dispel stereotypes and to be able to achieve what we wanted to achieve. The violence and intimidation: we felt that. I have colleagues who were beaten, injured, or killed. I don’t have pictures of that part of it, but I have pictures of the ordinary people who were friends, relatives or community colleagues of persons who were killed because they were fighting against racism just like those who were still alive.

Nurse Ora Bouie and a doctor at Tufts Delta Health Clinic, Mound Bayou, Mississippi (1968), Doris Derby.

Nurse Ora Bouie and a doctor at Tufts Delta Health Center, Mound Bayou, Mississippi (1968), Doris Derby. Photo: © Doris A. Derby

I want to talk specifically about the photo in ‘We Will Walk’ of a volunteer mathematics teacher at Tufts-Delta Health Center – because you’ve done so much work in education throughout your career. Why did this feel like an important moment to capture?
We wanted to show all the important aspects of the Tufts-Delta Health Center, as a project that built on what black people in Mound Bayou, Mississippi had done in the past and was expanding it to provide all kinds of services and employment and education.

The centre was started by two doctors at Tufts University, who wrote a proposal to the government to be able to expand the facilities and the programmes and the offerings of the medical centre in Mound Bayou, an all-black town, which had been in existence for many years. Back in the early 1900s – and through the 1960s – there were a lot of black people who died for lack of medical attention. Because of their race they would not be accepted for treatment at the white medical facilities. Two doctors, a white one and a black one, at Tufts University Medical School, wrote this proposal, which was very expansive. It included expanding the physical facilities, it had a programme for visiting nurses, for adult education, it worked hand-in-hand with providing outreach with medical assistance to the Head Start centres, and it provided jobs for people around the community. If you were affiliated with the Civil Rights Movement in any way, and you worked for a white person and they found out, you would get fired if you didn’t stop your participation. So the health clinic was a very positive thing. I have many pictures related to it – the expanding and building of the facilities.

How does it feel to see your work from this time appear in galleries and museums now – several decades later?
There have only been so many avenues that I’ve had, or time because I was a professional educator, for me to have my pictures out there, because I was doing other things. I certainly wasn’t trying to have a reputation as a photographer. I was an educator using visual arts and other artistic forms to document our struggle for justice, equality, and the end to violence and oppression, and to be involved in history-making. But in around 2000, I was able to start putting on my own photography shows. For each show I had a different theme: women in Civil Rights; the changing environment; the Black Arts Movement; and Farish Street, the main street in Jackson, Mississippi where the black community during segregation had its business hub.

And all this past year, I have been working on a one-woman show on the Gibbs-Green Memorial, for Jackson State University. I had hundreds of pictures relating to the aftermath of the murder by the police of two young black men, one a high school student and one a college student, at Jackson State College in 1970. The police came on to the campus, said there was unrest – there was controversy about what had happened but in the end the police came with the Thompson’s Tank, shot into the women’s dormitory and killed the two students, Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green. After that, there were protests in front of that dormitory, because the police wanted to get rid of the evidence of the bullets and the bullet holes. There was of course a lawsuit against the police captain and all the people involved in the shooting. They never prosecuted anyone. I wasn’t there during the shooting but I have pictures of the students protesting, of the funeral of one of the students – the other one lived outside of Jackson – of people marching, and the congressional hearings. I prepared this exhibition – with a total of 60 photographs.

A solidarity funeral procession on Lynch Street, Jackson, on the day of the funeral of James Earl Green.

A solidarity funeral procession on Lynch Street in Jackson, Mississippi, on the day of the funeral of James Earl Green (1970), Doris Derby. Photo: © Doris A. Derby

It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on how the current protests and Black Lives Matter movement compare with your experiences in the ’60s and beyond.
It’s a repeat, it’s just the same thing that’s continuing to happen. What is happening here now was happening then. There were people who were being killed, assassinated, lynched, shot, my colleagues – my peer colleagues in SNCC as well as older people who were veterans in the military, came back, and became active as leaders in the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People], because they saw that outside of the United States they didn’t face the same kind of discrimination. And then you had young people from the north that went down south, they worked together with local leaders to bring about change – and they were very brave. We were in marches, we were in protests, we were in the trenches.

When I left Mississippi and after I took my position as director of African American student services and programmes at Georgia State University, I always told the students, ‘The Civil Rights Movement is not over.’ What we were doing in my office, dealing with problems of discrimination in education and employment and so forth, is a continuation. It’s just that when you’re in the north you don’t easily see it, or you’re in an urban area, you don’t see it, or you may not want to see it until it happens to you. Some parents don’t want their children to see it, but all that stuff, it’s still going on – in a different form.

And so now people are out on the streets, like we were out on the streets before in the Civil Rights Movement days. They are trying to see about making change, for sure. And I think there’s going to be change, because what was happening below the surface is rising to the top. Black people who lived in these areas and experienced racism and blatant violence knew what was happening but white Americans just ignored the signs. Now there are more white people who can understand what is really happening to us, to America, how deep it goes and how things can happen to them when they stand with us. They understand that Black Lives Matter and how we are being oppressed. Photography, documentary films, cell phones, videos, are making it possible for the truth to come out about the plight of black people, male and female, young and old, past and present. The struggle continues!

‘We Will Walk: Art and Resistance in the American South’ reopens at Turner Contemporary, Margate, on 22 July (until 6 September). ‘The Gibbs-Green Tragedy at 50: The Photographs of Doris Derby’ at Jackson State University has been postponed due to Covid-19.