As it so often happens with the passing of notable African Americans, we get the news days and sometimes weeks after they depart. Such is the case with Doris A. Derby, an activist photographer who was seemingly everywhere during the Civil Rights Movement. She joined the ancestors on March 28 in Atlanta and was 82.
Her vital statistics, and she was born Nov. 11, 1939, in the Bronx, are but a small indicator of her commitment to freedom and justice, and her membership in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and her role as a founder of the Free Southern Theater. She was raised in the Williamsbridge section of the Bronx and even as an elementary school student expressed her concern about the inequality and the lack of representation of Black culture in the classroom.
The study of dance was an early dream, and she was reasonably successful winning a scholarship at the Katherine Dunham African dance classes at the Harlem YMCA. But a lifelong endeavor with civil rights took command as a teenager after she joined the Youth Chapter of the NAACP and her church. Besides her involvement in rallies and demonstrations, Doris was a student at Hunter College where she first majored in cultural anthropology.
During her senior year in college, she began traveling abroad, visiting such countries as Nigeria, France and Italy. Back at home her intrepid wanderlust took her to Native American areas, particularly to the Navajo Indian Reservation where she saw firsthand the oppressive conditions the people there endured. These travels and experiences fueled her determination to bring about change and she took that vision and energy into the classroom and into adult literacy programs sponsored by SNCC at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. In this capacity she worked in close association with John O’Neal and Gilbert Moses as a co-founder of the
Free Southern Theater. It was around this same period of time that she began to actively photograph the movement activities, with a special interest on documenting the role her comrades played in the fight against racism and discrimination.
From 1963 to 1972 she was a field secretary for SNCC in Mississippi, working hand in hand with Bob Moses and COFO (Council of Federated Organizations), and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), where she often accompanied the indomitable Fannie Lou Hamer. Doris was an indispensable worker in practically every organization to advance freedom during her days in Mississippi, including a child development group, the Head Start Program, and the massive Freedom Summer initiative under the direction of Bob Moses.
Throughout all these activities her camera was busy capturing decisive moments in the struggle, and she was soon a member of Southern Media, Inc. and began traveling across the state gathering the photos and moments that would be part of various documentaries. Some of these pictures were part of her lectures and exhibits as she taught and trained students to become active in the movement.
In her book “Poetagraphy: Artistic Reflections of a Mississippi Lifeline in Words and Images: 1963-1972” that she published independently in 2019, a good sample of her artistic and political work is showcased. Two of her photographs were published in “Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts of Women in SNCC,” and she also contributed an essay that recounted some of the trials and tribulations that challenged her during that period. Her photographs and exhibits are too numerous to list here, and the same can be said of her academic career that intensified after she left Mississippi in 1972 and focused on completing her M.A. and Ph.D. in social anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Doris joined the University System of Georgia State University in 1990 as an adjunct associate professor of anthropology and the founding director of the Office of African American Student Services and Programs. Consistent with her preoccupation with the visual arts and photography, she was the co-founder of the Performing and Visual Arts Council at Georgia State University in 2008. After more than 22 years at the college, she retired, though continued to lecture and work as a consultant.
During her stint at Georgia State University, she lived in Atlanta with her husband actor Bob Banks, both active members of countless institutions and community groups. On Oct. 6, 2011, Doris received the 26th Governor’s Award in the Humanities in Atlanta for documenting and preserving images and stories enabling current and future generations to learn about the Civil Rights Movement and social change in the Deep South.