Theatre Where It Mattered: Dr. Doris Derby Remembers Mississippi

When Bob Moses, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, recruited fellow New Yorker Doris Derby (she/her) to relocate to the Jim Crow South in the 1960s, he offered Derby, then working as an elementary school teacher, a position as a SNCC field secretary at the grand salary of $10 per week. The idea of forming a theatre, especially one that would become a cultural linchpin of the Civil Rights Movement, wasn’t yet a glimmer. SNCC’s focus was on achieving the franchise for masses of rural Black adults who faced barriers and obstacles including the one Moses wanted Derby to help them overcome: literacy tests comprising dozens of arcane and legalistic questions meant to prevent the masses of sharecroppers who worked the fields sun-up to sunset from becoming voters.

Questions like these from a 1965 Alabama Literacy Test read like truncheon blows on the body politic:

Who passes laws against piracy?


The electoral vote for President is counted in the presence of two bodies. Name them:

“We were developing a specific type of literacy program,” Dr. Derby explained in a recent interview. “It was tied to being able to produce and read different information relating to voting.”

Derby, who would later earn a doctorate in social anthropology and do pathbreaking work as a photographer, had already lived on a Navajo reservation in 1959 and had spent the summer of 1960 in Nigeria. As an educator, she was deeply interested in the work being planned in Mississippi, but initially refused Moses’s overtures due to other pressing commitments. It was when she saw footage in May 1963 of deliberate attacks by Bull Connor’s snarling German Shepherds and pressurized fire hoses aimed at the bodies of Black children marching in Birmingham, Ala., for voting rights, that she relented. “I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it. This is horrible, I will do what I can to help,’” she recalled.

Agreeing to go to Mississippi for a year, she stayed for nine.

Read the article at American Theatre Magazine