Documenting the Civil Rights Movement

From the October 2015 Desktop News | Dr. Doris A. Derby, a documentary photographer and civil rights activist, donated a historic photograph from the civil rights era to The University of Alabama during the opening reception of an exhibit featuring her photographs.

The exhibit, “Fertile Ground: The Civil Rights Movement and Its Legacy in the Mississippi Delta,” will be displayed through Oct. 30 at The University of Alabama Gallery in the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center in downtown Tuscaloosa.

Derby’s donated photograph is now part of the Paul R. Jones Collection of American Art at UA, one of the largest collections of African-American art in the world. Paul Jones donated the collection to UA in 2008. He died in 2010.

“Paul saw some of my photographs before he died, and he wanted to purchase some of them for his collection,” Derby said. “The photograph I’m donating is one of the ones he had selected. It was just meant to be in the collection.”

The photograph features Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, a sharecropper and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee supporter, addressing the Mississippi Democratic Nominating Convention in 1968. It is typical of Derby’s photographs, which often represent ordinary people who did extraordinary things in support of the civil rights movement.

Images featured in the University Gallery exhibition include ones which depict the people, places and activities of the following civil rights organizations based in Mississippi: the Mississippi Action Program/Head Start, the Liberty House Handcraft and Marketing Cooperatives of the Poor Peoples Corporation, the Delta Ministry, the Free Southern Theater, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and a collage of Derby’s civil rights activities.

Derby took these photographs between 1963 and 1972.

“The everyday work of local people was as important to the civil rights movement as were the more familiar leaders and the dramatic protests and confrontations, yet these scenes are not part of our collective memory of the movement,” Derby said. “As a documentary photographer, I took photos of pivotal events to document what was going on in the movement but also photos of ordinary people who were involved in them.

“A lot of the photographs look like ordinary people doing ordinary things, but, in fact, they’re ordinary activities that most Americans took for granted but weren’t possible—or were extremely difficult—for black people living in Mississippi and other Southern states to engage in at that time.”

One set of photographs, for example, shows black parents enrolling their children in the Mississippi Action Program, successor to the Child Development Group of Mississippi, or CDGM, for which Derby was a resource teacher.

CDGM was the first Head Start program in Mississippi. Parents enrolled their children despite threats to their lives, loss of their jobs and bullets shot into their homes, churches or centers, Derby said.

Derby was active in the civil rights movement in Georgia and Mississippi for 10 years, during which she volunteered and later became a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, as an adult literacy teacher and trainer of teachers. Along with two others, she co-founded The Free Southern Theater, a community repertory theatre created to complement civil rights movement initiatives.

Derby left Mississippi in 1972 to pursue graduate studies at the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana in African American studies and cultural anthropology. She went on to become the founding director of African American Student Services and Programs and an adjunct associate professor of anthropology at Georgia State University in 1990, a position she held until retiring in 2012.

She resides in Atlanta with her husband, actor Bob Banks.

The exhibit’s sponsors include UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, New College, College of Arts and Sciences Diversity Committee, Department of American Studies, Department of Art and Art History, Department of Gender and Race Studies, Summersell Center for the Study of the South in the Department of History, and the Division of Community Affairs’ Crossroads Community Center.

The UA Gallery is located at 620 Greensboro Ave. in downtown Tuscaloosa. It is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the first Fridays of the month until 8 p.m. For more information, phone the gallery at 205/345-3038 or phone 205/342-2060.