National Archives displaying Mississippi Civil Rights photography

Photo by Hugh Osteen

Photo by Hugh Osteen

By Curt Yeomans


Doris Derby was in the middle of the racially charged atmosphere that defined life in Mississippi during the 1960's, watching it unfold through the lens of her camera.

Derby arrived in Mississippi, in 1963, to teach adult, African Americans how to read, at Tougaloo College, on the northern side of Jackson, Miss. It was a turbulent time in Mississippi as the legacy of Jim Crow came to a head with the budding Civil Rights Movement. Derby worked with a group, called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC.

The year before she arrived in Jackson, riots broke out at the University of Mississippi, in Oxford, when James Meredith became that school's first African-American student. A year after she arrived, three civil rights workers -- who Derby personally knew -- were murdered in Philadelphia, Miss., because of the work they were doing to gain equal rights for African Americans in the state.

"It [Mississippi in the 1960s] was a lot of things," said Derby, who is now the director of Georgia State University's Office of African-American Student Services and Programs. "It was a very rich time in history. You had people involved in the Civil Rights Movement who were committed to making life better for African Americans. It was also very spiritual ...

"And, then it was also a very scary time," she added. "There were a lot of people opposed to what we were doing. You were taking a chance."

Derby, a native of New York, said she stayed in Mississippi for nine years, during which time, she took "thousands" of photographs of work done by civil rights workers to improve the lives of blacks who lived in the state. Nearly 100 of those photographs went on display this week, for a two-month exhibit, at the Morrow-based National Archives at Atlanta.

The exhibit is called "Revisiting the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement through an activist's lens." Derby said she took the photographs for a group called Southern Media, which was trying to document what was going on at the time.

National Archives Program Specialist Mary Evelyn Tomlin said Derby's photography has been put on display at the archives to tie into upcoming events that celebrate African Americans.

"It is scheduled for January and February, because in January, we have Martin Luther King, Jr. Day," Tomlin said. "And, then February is Black History Month, and every year we do a black family history symposium to celebrate Black History Month. It is actually one of our most popular events of the year."

Many of the photographs, taken by Derby, that are on display at the National Archives seemingly show African Americans doing every-day-type activities, such as going to the doctor, or riding a bicycle, or sitting in a classroom. Derby said there is a deeper meaning to the images, however.

She said she was documenting the efforts of civil rights workers with her photographs, as well as the lives of black people in the state.

"They were documenting the conditions people were living in, and the things we were doing to improve the quality of life," she said. "When you were looking at a picture of a doctor treating a patient, you were seeing one of our civil rights initiatives, which was to improve health care. When you saw people in a classroom, that was another one of our initiatives, to improve the quality of education available to these people ...

"It was not just about voting," she explained. "We were working to achieve health care, educational and other types of reforms to make life better for these people."

Sean Gemmel, a student employee at the National Archives, said he noticed, while he was arranging the photographs for the exhibit, that Derby's photography showed a different side to the Civil Rights Movement. He pointed out that rather than focusing on protest marches, led by some of the big names in the movement, Derby put the spotlight on the everyday people in the trenches.

"Hers is much more the grassroots side of it," Gemmel said.

Tomlin said Derby will also be a speaker at two upcoming events at the archives. The photographer is scheduled to participate in a panel discussion on civil rights workers during a free-to-attend Martin Luther King, Jr., celebration the archives is co-sponsoring with Clayton State University, on Jan. 20, from 6:30 p.m., to 8:30 p.m.

She is also scheduled to be a featured speaker at this year's "Black Family History Symposium" at the archives, on Feb. 26, from 9 a.m., to 1 p.m. Preregistration is required for the symposium.

The National Archives at Atlanta is located at 5780 Jonesboro Road, in Morrow. For more information about the exhibit, call (770) 968-2100.