On May 14th, 1970, Mississippi police responded to a group of African American students at Jackson State University who had gathered after a rumor that Charles Evers, a local politician and civil rights leader and brother of slain activist Medgar Evers, had been murdered. The students, and non-students, had been throwing rocks at white motorists who were driving down the main road through campus. The area had been the scene of other confrontations between African American and white residents in Jackson.
Police responded to the protestors, who in turn began throwing rocks at the police. The police advanced on the crowd and the women’s dorm behind them. Then, just after midnight, on May 15th, the police opened fire.
The police fired more than 150 rounds in roughly 30 seconds, hitting the dorm with over 400 bullets and pieces of buckshot. They claimed there had been a sniper in a dorm building, though no evidence ever surfaced. The gunfire killed two Africa-American men: Phillip L. Gibbs, a junior at the University, and James Earl Green, a local high school senior.
After the funeral for Green and Gibbs, the attendees walked from the church, past the dorm building where the damage from the police bullets was still clearly visible as a group of men raised their fists in defiance.
Doris Derby recorded the scene in black and white.
Derby, who was born in the Bronx, is a photographer, activist, and a retired professor of anthropology at Georgia State University. But she comes from a family whose history is entwined in the Civil Rights Movement, as the book text recounts: “My concept of civil rights is a broad one. It is connected with my family who all fought for racial equality. My grandmother was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1920s. My father was a civil rights activist who fought discrimination as an undergraduate and then inequality in the workplace.”
Between 1963 and 1972, as a member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, she went to Mississippi, where she spent most of her time, she worked as photographer, organizer, and teacher. But she did also travel through Georgia, Louisiana, and other parts of the South during the years. She wore many hats, including being a founder of the Free Southern Theater in 1963 and as a founding member of Southern Media, Inc. which was a documentary film and photography group that ran from 1966 to 1972.
She photographed some of the famous people involved in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as some of its most pivotal events. There are photographs of Muhammad Ali, Alice Walker, James Brown, Fannie Lou Hamer and Jesse Jackson. There are scenes from the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the aforementioned funeral after the Jackson State University shooting.
Her work also captures everyday events in the Movement like organizational meetings, press conferences, and speeches. These are combined along with scenes of educational programs, medical clinics, community theater programs, church services, and voting.
But it is her intimate photographs of everyday life in African American Communities that show what the Civil Rights Movement was for. It’s the farm workers, the sharecroppers, the women at work, and all the families that show up in the photographs over and over again.
And the children. There are photographs of three little kids sleeping together in a bed, two little African American girls playing with a white doll because there were no black dolls in the stores, children playing dress-up, children sitting on front porches, and others riding in a wagon.
At the end of the essay that courses through the book interspersed with the photographs, Derby sees history repeating itself:
“Now is a continuation of then. We are seeing repeats today of what we saw back then, like voter suppression and police brutality. When you make strides, the enemy takes steps to block your achievements and you must do something else.”
Now roughly 60 years or so after the photographs were taken, the kids of the children in those photographs are part of the generation that once again has taken to the streets protesting police shootings of African Americans in order to once again try and change the system.
By Robert E. Gerhardt, Jr.
Robert Gerhardt is a New York City based photographer and freelance writer. His photographs and writings have been published nationally and internationally including in The Hong Kong Free Press, The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Diplomat.
A Civil Rights Journey by Doris Derby can be purchased from MACK books, 168 pages, £30, $40.