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Leah Seupersad, 404-413-1354
ATLANTA—Thousands of photographs captured through the lens of Doris Derby’s cameras in the 1960s are still captivating audiences almost 50 years later.
In 1961, Derby was on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement, as the founding member of the New York branch of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an organization that played a major role in pushing for the equality for black people by organizing early sit-ins, voter registration campaigns and freedom rides.
An elementary school teacher just barely out of college in August 1963, Derby was among the organizers of the March on Washington and later that year moved from New York to Mississippi to work on an adult literacy project in Tougaloo, Miss.
“I have lots of memories, but working with people to pull off the March on Washington successfully and without violence was a major accomplishment,” said Derby, who has been director of the African-American Student Services and Programs at Georgia State University since 1990. “Participating with a group of young people who were intelligent, dedicated, creative, and coming up with solutions to end different aspects of segregation, was a big thing. I had just been out of college a year or two, so that was a tremendous experience for me.”
Derby is one of 52 SNCC women who recently shared their experiences in the book “Hands on the Freedom Plow.” Derby details many SNCC initiatives she witnessed, including the first Head Start Program in the United States, the Child Development Group of Mississippi. Derby also co-founded the Free Southern Theater in Mississippi, which aimed to educate southern African-Americans about their history and the Civil Rights Movement.
“A lot of the figureheads in the movement were men, but women worked along side the men and did all of what they did,” Derby said. “You had women who became the first mayor of a town or city, council women, and highly educated persons in all walks of life. These women took chances and dealt with violence just like the men, and we wanted to have these stories told.”
Derby created a photography exhibit to complement the book, titled “Reflections of Women Writers in SNCC – The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.” The three-part exhibit, which includes pictures of the women taken at SNCC reunions from 1994 to 2010, will be on display in GSU’s Student Center Gallery through Feb. 28.
Derby’s images document the role of women, and how they helped forge community by working in the arts, in small business cooperatives and in clinics, and mostly to illustrate how African-Americans were helping themselves. Derby said her goal was always to show “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
“You had the political aspects of voting and student sit-ins, but you also had initiatives related to educational outreach and reform, economic development, agricultural development and a lot related to health care and medical reform,” said Derby, who lived in Mississippi for nine years.
Derby began documenting history as a child, through painting, drawing and photography. Thousands of her photos were taken when she worked as a photographer for Southern Media, a California company that hired and trained people living in Mississippi to document what was going on at the time.
“I always had one camera around my neck and one on each arm,” Derby said. “That was my challenge to find and identify black culture, different components through the arts and education and that’s what I am still doing today. My task is to continue to get that out, put it into context, and make it available to young people and others.”
Derby’s pictures have been displayed at various locations, including the High Museum in Atlanta and the Smithsonian Institute. More than 125 of her photos are currently on display at the National Archives of Atlanta in Morrow, Ga.
“Her pictures are really quite extraordinary,” said Mary Evelyn Tomlin, public programs specialist at the National Archives at Atlanta. “The exhibit has been very successful. Her pictures show average people doing their activities, but it also shows how they live and where they live, which provides a good picture of a time and place.”
Published Feb. 7, 2011