‘Then is now’: ArtsXchange virtual series connects past and present movements for civil rights
Jan. 30 session to uncover, combat campaigns against U.S. history of racism
By Angela Oliver
On a cross-country trip in the summer of 1962, Dr. Doris Derby received a message about the arrest of one of her friends in Albany, Georgia. They knew each other from her alma mater, Hunter College.
“I was intending to spend about a week seeing how she was,” said Derby, who was a teacher at the time. “I ended up saying the whole summer.”
While Derby, 82, comes from a legacy of civil rights activists — from her grandmother, who was a founding member of the NAACP, to her father, who found ways to combat the discrimination he faced as a college student and engineer in the 1930s — that stop in Albany propelled the Bronx native’s journey through the frontlines of racial justice in the South.
Her firsthand experience as an organizer and documentarian in the civil rights movement of the 1960s inspired the ArtsXchange’s latest series, The Power of Words: When Poetry Meets Freedom Songs and Images, an exploration of writing, culture, and literacy in the movements for civil rights.
The session on Jan. 30 explored Derby’s work through the lens of race and the law with Dr. Natsu Taylor Saito, law professor at Georgia State University and author of “Colonialism, Race and the Law: Why Structural Racism Persists.”
Part of the Georgia Humanities project, The Power of Words is a series of virtual creative writing workshops and author panels hosted by Theresa Davis, a fierce slam poet, longtime educator, and director of literacy programs at the ArtsXchange.
The series seeks to help folks draw connections between the struggles of the 1960s and those they confront today. The ArtsXchange also aims to help folks expand their understanding of human rights issues in their communities and express their insights in writing.
“I believe every person has a story to tell and our stories overlap more than we sometimes realize,” Davis said. “Writing creatively allows for honest expression and connection. My goal is to connect our individual stories to parts of Dr. Derby's journey.”
That summer in Albany, Derby worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and freedom fighters like Andrew Young and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“That’s when I really got involved,” she said.
The next year, in 1963, the late Bob Moses asked Derby to come to Jackson, Mississippi. She went to develop a literacy program, based at the historically Black Tougaloo College, to prepare Black people to vote.
Along the way, Derby, who initially was a painter, picked up her father’s talent for photography.
“I was interested in documenting what was going on — not only the marches and protests, but the broad spectrum of what people were doing to help themselves,” she said of her nine years in Mississippi. “The people were building up the preschools, Head Start programs, Freedom Schools, handcraft and farming cooperatives, the Delta health center, visiting nurses, adult education and nutrition programs… I wanted to document all of it.”
Such documentation, said Dr. Natsu Taylor Saito, gives people a bigger window to the past.
“I love the way she conveys the energy, richness, and love that permeated the movement,” Saito said. “A lot of times, the histories we see now portray the struggle, and that’s very important. But they don’t always show the richness and beauty of it all. Her work brings out those dimensions and without all of those things, I don’t think the movement would’ve been as powerful as it was.”
Saito and Derby first crossed paths at Georgia State. In the late 1990s, Derby founded the university’s Office of African American Student Services and Programs. Saito – she also was an activist and organizer for Indigenous rights, anti-prison work and other causes during her college years and beyond – joined the faculty 1994, teaching public international law and international human rights; and seminars on race and the law, federal Indian law, and Indigenous rights.
She will discuss her book’s use of the settler colonial framework as a way to understand the history of racialization and the construction and maintenance of racial hierarchies in the U.S.
The dominant narrative insists that there’s an equal playing field, that this country is founded on on democracy and liberty, and that better enforcement of equal protection will rid the country of the racism upon which it was founded.
“But what I’m saying in the book is that racialization of people – the ways different groups have been constructed and treated – has been dependent on needs they were perceived to serve for white settler colonizers,” Saito said.
“It’s a different way of understanding the nature of this country and therefore the nature of race and racism in this country,” she said. “In order to bring about social justice, we have to look at the roots. When we take a different look, the solutions will be very different than usual as well.”
With time has come some differences between the civil rights movements of the past and present.
Populations have increased, giving the people more power in numbers and resources. Education has expanded, creating wider awareness of the problems and strategies to solve them. And technology and culture has evolved, moving Derby a long way from sewing her dresses with large front pockets that held her many cameras and lenses as the only woman on the Southern Media Inc. photography team.
But the similarities abound.
“Then is now, and now is the time,” Derby said. “We have to push forward. Young people, take it from here.”
A recent celebration of SNCC’s 60th anniversary keeps her hopeful about the urgency of the movement and the ways young people, who were in great attendance, she said, are studying, continuing and documenting the fight.
“Some of us are still around,” Derby said. But many from the frontlines of the 1950s and 60s have passed. “That’s why I keep being involved, because how many of us have photographs from that time? We have knowledge that the young people can use.”
Her journey spawned about 9,000 images – some slides, some developed.
A flip through the pages of her books reveal the heartbreak of that era, like the photos from James Green’s funeral in Mississippi. In May of 1970, Green, 17, and Phillip Gibbs, 21, were killed and several were injured when police fired hundreds of shots into a campus dorm where students were protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. It is now known as the Jackson State (University) Massacre.
There were joyful moments, too, though, Derby said. Many of her own came in the solitude of writing poetry in the backyard of the “Freedom House,” a place just outside of Tougaloo’s gates, where she and other activists lived.
“My poems definitely reflect what was happening politically with racism and segregation,” she said. “But the back of the house was a peaceful area surrounded by bushes. It was one of the places I wrote my poetry because it was so calm and in nature.”
Her words and images help keep the truth alive.
“We have to get more young people out to know what’s happened in the past,” she said. “We don’t keep it a secret. We need to uncover and show that these things are happening again.”
Those happenings can be seen on any front page or news channel today.
Just as students were killed by police in the massacre, many young folks today are overpoliced in their schools or gunned down with impunity by militarized police. Just as literacy tests suppressed the Black vote across Southern communities in earlier generations, today’s legislation invokes the same as it purges voter rolls, eliminates voting methods and closes polling places in predominately Black precincts.And just as people were discriminated against for public services, locked out of access to political office, and exploited in jobs with unlivable wages, today’s communities still face discrimination, deathly working conditions, and the daily fight to survive the conditions created and inflamed by poverty.
The problems have traveled and mutated through enslavement, the rollback of Reconstruction, Jim Crow era, and the civil rights movement to today, Saito said.
“What strikes me as similar now, though, is the energy that has come with the Movement for Black Lives and global protests that are more than protests,” she said. “They’re expressions of solidarity and community-based power. The problems are constant, but there’s a renewed sense of empowerment and the idea that, collectively, we can organize to change things. There’s a sense that it’s our responsibility to exercise our right to self-determination.”
2020 was a major turning point for that renewal.
What some saw as social turmoil, others saw as social development in terms of organizing and making demands for change, she said.
“And there was a surprising willingness, apparently, of institutions to take this seriously,” she said. “They felt the pressure to do something and there was a lot of movement, at least thinking about how to approach racial justice. Prior to that, an idea like abolishing the police would’ve been ludicrous in mainstream circles; now, it’s not.”
With that turning point also came further education and unearthing of this country’s ugly history, thus, a widespread resistance to the progress that was edging on. Among the most blatant was the misinformation campaign about Critical Race Theory by conservatives.
“A lot of the backlash we saw throughout Trump’s presidency was a reaction of people on the right,” Saito said. “There was real fear that the world as they know it is being dismantled; that the privilege they’ve come to accept as theirs is going away. Politicians on the right have taken advantage of that.”
In "Origin Stories: Critical Race Theory Encounters the War on Terror,"forthcoming in the Michigan Journal of Race and Law (2022), Saito writes:
“The depictions of critical race theory as anti-American propaganda intended to denigrate white people are wildly inaccurate. But critical race theory does ask, ‘What does race have to do with it?’ — a question. many Americans would prefer not to confront. It considers how and why race plays a role in any given issue and formulates strategies for contesting racial subordination. This approach, long utilized by individual scholars of color, was introduced as a conscious framework in the late 1980s by professors committed to incorporating the struggle against racism into their analysis of U.S. law and legal institutions.
“Critical race theory insists on including the voices of all peoples and complicates the American master narrative—the origin story that provides a highly sanitized version of the violence employed against, and the exploitation of, Indigenous peoples, persons of African descent, and many immigrant groups, and relegates these actions to a past for which no one is today responsible.”
The results of resisting this truth span nearly half the states in the U.S. that have enacted legislation to ban certain topics from the classroom. Arizona was an earlier purveyor of the campaign against teaching the history of white supremacy, dismantling ethnic studies classes in 2010.
“The way they think, ‘If we can make that history go away, we won’t have these problems, people will be happy and get along again,’ results in this campaign of negating and silencing history and misrepresenting the positions of the struggle for racial justice,” said Saito. “That has been successful because cooperation of so much of the media.”
The campaign against Critical Race Theory spawned largely from right-winger Christopher Rufo’s writings and Fox News interviews — riddled with falsehoods — which influenced the president at the time to issue an executive order banning federal agencies from requiring diversity trainings that mention racism or critical race theory, or white supremacy, according to reports by The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, NBC News and other outlets.
President Joe Biden repealed that order on his first day in office.
“Rufo’s plan to make CRT the villain wasn’t a coincidence,” Saito said. “It was deliberate instigation of (right-wing) movement to quash the widespread movement for racial justice that had expanded from being carried out by Black people and people of color on the fringes. More people started getting involved and the right was scared by that.”
Counting on political fatigue throughout the country, the misinformation campaign was a very effective mobilizing tool for conservatives. But it’s not factual, Saito said. CRT was not being taught in public schools; it was very esoteric study in law schools and other areas on the college level.
Such concerted efforts from oppressive forces — especially in an era where information, whether true or false, spreads online like wildfires — show the need for a series like The Power of Words.
“This program is important as part of much broader effort to make sure this history and social reality are still accessible to people while they’re being eliminated and censored out of school curricula,” Saito said. “We need alternative education venues now more than ever.
The series will continue with writing workshops hosted by Davis on Jan. 26, Feb. 12 and Feb. 23, all on Zoom.
Dr. Doris Derby who has long lived in Atlanta and received the 2021 Change Maker Award during the ArtsXchange’s Ebon Dooley Art & Social Justice Awards in December, shared her work on the first author’s panel in October.
Dr. Doris Derby - 2021 Change Maker Award- Acceptance Speech
The final author’s panel will be on Feb. 27, featuring participants who want to share a public reading of their work.
Davis hopes the workshops will inspire people to express themselves in a new way.
Writing is important for many reasons, Saito added.
“It helps you process and retain information, but it’s also a process of making something your own; something you can think critically about,” she said. “Writing is very powerful. It’s a way to express your vision of the world and your place in the world very directly, instead of just accepting what you’re told about who you are and where you belong.
“It’s part of the whole process of empowerment. All the artforms can reflect that,” she continued.
Derby’s art has empowered many over the years, from her poetry and images to dramatic readings she coordinated as co-creator of SNCC’s Free Southern Theater. She encourages young artists to be creative in the ways they use art of all formats to support communities, and to get their messages and demands across.
“Keep creating and utilize what’s around you,” Derby said. “Don’t go for the money and make compromises with what your work is all about. Keep a job so you can function but don’t be discouraged if your work doesn’t have an immediate return. I was an educator and activist during those earlier years; I didn’t want my documentation work out there at the time. But when I was ready to come out with it, my time came.”
Saito, a friend of the ArtsXchange since its founding days in the 1980s, also hopes the series will encourage people to support the organization.
“The ArtsXchange is a great example of someone saying, ‘I see a need, let’s fill it.’ It’s such an important cultural institution in our community,” she said. “I hope people will be inspired to think of ways they can also create institutions that we need, because if we sit around and wait for the government to provide educational and creative outlets, or any other resources, we’re going to be waiting a long time.”
To learn more about the series visit