Patricia Murphy Derian, a Mississippi social and political activist and assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs under Pres. Jimmy Carter, was born Patricia Sue Murphy on 29 August 1929 in New York City, where her mother was visiting. Growing up in Virginia during the Great Depression and World War II, her Irish roots and Catholic upbringing may have influenced her attitude about the Jim Crow system she saw around her. Decades later, that attitude, which reflected a desire for reform, prodded her into a career in civil rights and political activism.
In 1953, shortly after graduating from the University of Virginia’s Nursing School, Patricia Murphy married Paul S. Derian, a recent medical school graduate. Derian settled into the life of a 1950s upper-middle-class housewife, focused mostly on rearing the family’s three children. Prodded by extensive reading of works on philosophy and social commentary, especially the writings of French anticlerical writer André Gide, she formally broke with the Catholic Church in a resignation letter to her bishop and became an avowed agnostic.
In 1959 Paul Derian accepted a position at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, where Patt Derian soon became involved in civil rights activism. The violence at the University of Mississippi surrounding the 1962 admission of James Meredith inspired her to help organize Mississippians for Public Education, an organization of white women who publicly supported the desegregation of Mississippi’s public schools and challenged the Citizens’ Council’s idea of abandoning these schools. In 1965 Derian involved herself in antipoverty activism as director of the Jackson Head Start Office. A year later she took a position as adviser to Mississippi Action for Progress, a new statewide agency authorized to administer Head Start programs.
In 1968 Derian helped found the Loyalist Democratic Party of Mississippi, a biracial alternative to the segregationist Regular Democrats and the increasingly black-separatist Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. The national Democratic Party recognized the Loyalists as the state’s genuine Democratic organization, and Derian served as member of the party’s national committee from 1968 to 1977. In this role she served on the commission that created a new party constitution, establishing landmark reforms in the presidential nominating process. During this period she briefly led the Southern Regional Council, one of the oldest and most important civil rights organizations in the United States.
After playing an important role in Jimmy Carter’s 1976 election campaign, Derian found herself appointed coordinator for human rights (a post later upgraded to assistant secretary for human rights and humanitarian affairs) in the State Department. She emerged as the department’s primary advocate for Carter’s new human rights approach to US foreign policy, pushing for the elimination of military aid to authoritarian US allies such as Argentina and the Philippines. She became internationally famous for lecturing such allies on their poor human rights records. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979, Derian’s bureau lost influence in the Carter administration.
After Carter lost the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan, Derian and Hodding Carter III (whom she had married in 1978) remained in Washington, D.C., where Derian continued her involvement in international human rights activities. She later moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where she died on 20 May 2016.
- Adam Bernstein, Washington Post (20 May 2016)
- John Kelly Damico, “From Civil Rights to Human Rights: The Career of Patricia M. Derian” (PhD dissertation, Mississippi State University, 1999)
- Patt Derian Papers, Special Collections, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi State University
- Victor Scott Kaufman, Historian (Fall 1998)