Cecil Williams’ life is like a history book, a volume with amazing photographs that vividly tell the story along with Williams’ memories.
Williams captured many of South Carolina’s civil rights moments with his camera. It was a time when black photojournalists were rare, and being one gave him a unique perspective into the history-making events that were largely ignored by the white media.
Events that happened in or near his hometown of Orangeburg. Events he photographed as a child, teenager and young adult in the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s and beyond.
“Cecil has been able to connect the national story about civil rights and clarify the role South Carolina played in the civil rights movement,” said Bobby Donaldson, an associate professor of history at the University of South Carolina and the director of the Civil Rights History and Research Center.
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Williams – who has a photo exhibit running through the end of the month at the South Carolina State Library – worked with Donaldson on Columbia SC 63, a project that highlighted the “intense campaign for self-determination and equality” waged by black South Carolinians leading up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Williams contends, with evidence, that historians have it wrong when they say the Civil Rights movement was launched with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in December 1955, or when they point to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education as the spark that desegregated schools in 1954.
Because while these events, as well as the actions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, were key in the fight against racial injustice, he said the civil rights movement actually began months before in South Carolina, specifically in Clarendon County and Orangeburg.
“My take is that the civil rights movement in the United States started in Clarendon County, with Briggs vs. Elliott,” Williams said, referring to Orangeburg as the “epicenter of the civil rights movement in the United States.”
In the late 1940s, the Rev. Joseph Armstrong DeLaine convinced Harry and Eliza Briggs, and a handful of other parents, to file a lawsuit challenging the lack of equal school transportation for black students in Clarendon County. Thurgood Marshall came to town to argue the case in 1951, but it was dismissed. Briggs v. Elliott was one of five cases combined into Brown v. Board of Education.
Williams was there. He has photographs of DeLaine, including a family portrait, one of him preaching from the pulpit and one of the family standing among the charred ruins of their home, which had been burned in 1951 to try to stop DeLaine in his battle for equal education.
Williams photographed Marshall when he arrived in Charleston on the Silver Meteor train, ready to prepare arguments for Briggs v. Elliott. He photographed the plaintiffs in the case.
He remembers the plaintiffs losing their jobs, their homes and being ruined financially when loans were called in as retaliation for filing the suit.
Not only does he remember the intensity, but he remembers which camera he used to capture these historical moments; how light framed a young boy clutching his mother’s hand, how he laid on the ground to catch the perfect angle of a protester or how he felt as he saw blood and empty shells on the ground as dawn arrived the morning after the Orangeburg Massacre.
Williams began taking photographs when he was 9 years old with a Kodak Brownie. His parents encouraged him by buying cameras and supplies.
“My parents made me the happiest kid in Orangeburg when they allowed me to set up a darkroom in a vacant room,” Williams said.
His earliest photos focused on his family and community activities. At age 14, he started photographing weddings and special events. And the local NAACP tapped him to take photos of their activities.
“There must have been some divine intervention which placed me in the unique position of being able to photograph such a large number of events that shaped America’s history,” Williams said. “Living my entire life in the epicenter of the civil rights movement certainly afforded me a wide array of journalistic opportunities.”
As Williams’ grew, so did the civil rights movement.
In 1956, at age 19, he became a correspondent for Jet magazine. Assisted by NAACP members, who told Williams when events were planned, he took photos of civil rights events in South Carolina that appeared in a national publication.
He also sold photographs to the Associated Press, which put his pictures in newspapers such as The New York Times.
Many of Williams’ landmark photographs are currently on display at the South Carolina State Library.
Walking among those photos, he remembers the story connected with each one: The man he passed on the way home from school each day, whose parents had been slaves; a photo he had taken for Jet of 21 teachers at Elloree Training School who quit their jobs rather than deny their membership in the NAACP; one of his most requested photos, of Claflin and S.C State students walking in a 1960 protest with signs that said “Freedom” and “Down With Segregation;” and the look of wide-eyed hope on the face of a young boy clutching his mother’s hand during a rally at the S.C. Statehouse in perhaps his favorite, and most popular, photo.
Of course he has a lot of popular and iconic photos.
In 1961, prompted by the NAACP, Williams photographed two Claflin students being turned away by the Orangeburg mayor at the front door of the white Saint Paul’s Methodist Church. The Associated Press bought the photo and published it internationally. Many in Orangeburg weren’t happy with Williams for that photo, and a month later the draft board reclassified his student status and ordered him to report to the draft.
That wasn’t the only time Williams’ suffered repercussions because of photos he took.
In 1956, Williams lost a scholarship to S.C. State because of a photo he took of Fred Moore, who was expelled from S.C. State because of his role leading student protests.
“I stood on top of a car to capture the convoy preparing to escort Moore from State College,” Williams said. Williams ended up attending Claflin on scholarship.
Williams also was arrested twice while taking photographs of protests.
“Based on my experiences … during the civil rights era, police officials saw no distinction in a black person with a camera and any other black person,” Williams said. “Simply put, in their eyes, we were the enemy.”
One arrest was in 1960, during a sit-in protest in Orangeburg, where more than 1,000 Claflin and S.C. State students were hosed and tear-gassed. He was among the 388 arrested that day. At the time, he wrote of the experience:
“The police chief shouted at the students to disperse or else get hosed,” Williams recalled. “Believe me, no one wanted to be showered outside because the temperature was about 45 degrees.
“I recognized a great photo angle opening up for me right smack in the middle of all the situation. I knelt down in a low crouched position and began to click off what I thought were terrific wide angle shots of this tense situation. But then two State Police officers approached and arrested me. They grabbed my arms, lifted me off the ground and placed me in the front seat of their grey colored patrol car.
“They took my Rolleiflex camera and film and tossed it into the trunk of their car.”
One of his favorite stories is the day he met Sen. John F. Kennedy, moments before he announced at a New York news conference that he was running for president.
“I was in New York, and I read that John F. Kennedy was going to be speaking at the Roosevelt Hotel,” Williams said. He decided to go.
When he got there, he noticed he was the only black journalist – which wasn’t that unusual for him. Security guards tried to remove him from the news conference when Kennedy walked in with his wife, Jacqueline.
“Senator Kennedy came to my aid,” Williams recalled. He had Williams sit up front between two nationally known journalists and gave Williams his card. The two men remained in touch until Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.
Williams has so many stories to tell, stories he patiently shares with students and others who ask to hear them.
Jonathon Johnson, a recent USC graduate, was among a group who listened to Williams recount some of his career highlights at a presentation at USC’s Hollings Library.
“Not often can you hear from someone who was there to bear witness,” Johnson said. “Not only did he bear witness, but he got photographic proof.”
“And he continues on today,” added USC sophomore Celeste Miner.
By chronicling the historical moments, he became a part of it. Among such events were:
▪ Harvey Gantt’s arrival at Clemson University in 1963, the day that Gantt became the first black to attend Clemson.
It was a bittersweet moment for Williams, who had dreamed of attending Clemson to study architecture before Gantt broke the color barrier. Williams graduated from Claflin University in 1960.
▪ Williams also photographed Henri Monteith, one of the three black students who ended segregation at the University of South Carolina in 1963. Three years earlier, he photographed Lloyd Williams and Raymond Weston leaving the administration building at USC after being told registration forms were not available for them.
▪ Williams was not at the Orangeburg Massacre in 1968, but he did take photographs of events two and three days earlier that led to the fatal tragedy, when S.C. State students protested the segregation of a nearby bowling alley.
Willliams did go to the site of the massacre the morning after. He picked up shotgun shells that were later used to prove that highway patrolmen fired point blank at the three students killed and 27 wounded. The officers were found innocent.
Time magazine ran a photo Williams had taken holding the shotgun shells.
▪ Williams, on assignment for Jet, photographed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King, when she came to Charleston to lead the Charleston Hospital Workers’ Strike.
Williams has accomplished quite a bit without his camera as well.
▪ In 1980, Williams was appointed commissioner with the South Carolina Energy Research Institute.
▪ In 1984, Williams ran in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat held by Strom Thurmond and received 145,543 votes, the largest number received by a black candidate in the state’s history at that time. He lost by 412 votes. He ran again in 1996, but lost another close race.
Williams has published several books, featuring his photographs as well as written accounts of the events. His books include “Out-of-the-Box in Dixie,” published in 2010 and “Unforgettable,” scheduled for release in March.
Not only does Williams still operate his photography studio, but he works as a archivist at Claflin University, working to preserve his photographs.
Williams’ work, has educated the public about the civil rights movement and injustices in South Carolina, Donaldson said.
“He has been integral to our understanding of the civil rights movement,” Donaldson said, “not only as a witness, but he documented the movement. He helped us visually understand untold stories, and events.
“With Cecil Williams, history keeps unfolding. His images are a reminder that there’s much more to learn about the history of our state.”
If you go
“Unforgettable: Celebrating a Time of Life, Hope and Bravery”
This photo exhibit at the South Carolina State Library is a prelude to Cecil Williams’ newest publication, “Unforgettable,” scheduled for release in March. The collection of forty images provides a rare glimpse of events, portraits, and moments of significant social change during the 1950s through the 1970s. The exhibit runs through Feb. 28.
WHERE: South Carolina State Library, 1500 Senate St.
LIBRARY HOURS: 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday