In elementary school, Cecil Williams photographed lawyer Thurgood Marshall’s early efforts to desegregate public schools. In high school, he documented the ‘60s civil rights sit-ins. As a young adult, he covered Harvey Gantt’s 1964 desegregation of Clemson University, the aftermath of the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre and the 1969 strike by Charleston hospital workers.
“The saying goes: A picture is worth a thousand words. But no. I say a good picture, a storytelling picture is worth a thousand words,” said Cecil Williams, a 78-year-old civil rights photographer.
Williams’s body of work, spanning the last six decades, defines good documentary photography in South Carolina. Starting as a child in the ‘50s, the Orangeburg native covered most major civil rights events in the Palmetto State, from the 1954 Brigg v. Elliott case, which he claims started the national civil rights movement, to the removal of the Confederate battle flag from atop the South Carolina Statehouse in 2000.
He began photographing at age 9 in segregated Orangeburg, South Carolina. Williams’s parents gave him the camera his older brother had abandoned after finding a love for playing music. The Kodak Baby Brownie camera resides in Williams’s studio, which is next door to his home in an Orangeburg suburb.
In the ‘40s, few African Americans in the South owned cameras. But Williams’s parents supported his hobby. “I owe my family everything,” Williams said. Walking around his tidy but packed studio office, he paused and looked down. His light brown eyes softened as he recalled memories about his parents. They allowed him to develop his pictures in the bathtub and kitchen sink, eventually letting him turn a bedroom into a darkroom.
“I don’t remember, but I’m sure the chemicals made the whole house stink,” Williams said with a chuckle.
He pointed to a large print hanging on the wall. It showed a group of young children, including Williams. Some of the neighborhood children appeared white but were labeled black. “I think of my childhood as perfect, in spite of my segregated upbringing. Looking back, I’d prefer it no other way.” He told stories of him and his friends as children. They sometimes pranked segregated businesses by passing as white and Hispanic to access services. Prohibited from the white-only drive-in movie theater, he and his friends snuck in and watched from the safety of a ditch.
He also delivered newspapers, earning his own money. For a while, and unbeknownst to his parents, he bought and ate a Snickers chocolate bar after breakfast, lunch, dinner and at night. “Even today, I can’t look at a Snickers without feeling sick,” Williams said. He laughs easily; it’s genuine and contagious.
Williams believes that growing up as a black person in the segregated Deep South gave him deep compassion and wisdom, along with a unique perspective of God and humanity. All these components seem to contribute to his professional and personal success in a Jim Crow society that deemed him lesser.
Williams is dapper but modest in his dress. On a Sunday afternoon in October, he wore a crisp short-sleeve shirt, light blue and button-down; charcoal suit pants and black oxford shoes. This was his casual outfit. Of average build, he carries himself with a natural grace, perhaps partially gained from playing tennis from an early age.
At 14, Williams played Arthur Ashe but lost 3-6. The American Tennis Association, the oldest African-American athletic organization in the United States, hosted the match in Daytona, Florida. Ashe became the first black No. 1 professional tennis player in 1975, desegregating tennis elite. He remains the only black man to have ever won three Grand Slam titles.
Even today, Williams has more energy than most people a quarter of his age. He embodies the elegance of a ‘50s movie star, though his café au lait complexion would have prohibited access to Hollywood stardom.
Williams’s father, a black man, ran a tailoring business in downtown Orangeburg. His mother worked as a school teacher. She was a person of mixed race and had very light skin. She chose not to pass as white because of her black children. “Look here at something I found,” Williams said, motioning me to follow him out of his studio room to the foyer. A three-ring binder sat open on a table. “My great grandfather was a Confederate soldier,” he said and pointed to a white man posing holding a gun. “That’s my mother’s grandfather,” he said as if still processing the fact.
He only recently discovered this part of his family history.
His mother worked with the Rev. Joseph A. DeLaine, whom Williams believes is as important as civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks. DeLaine helped organize people to sign petitions in Clarendon County, South Carolina. Those petitions eventually led to Briggs v. Elliott, the first lawsuit to challenge segregation in public schools. Briggs was combined with four other lawsuits in Brown v. Board of Education. And in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
Williams photographed the South Carolina meetings and appeals court trial of Briggs v. Elliott, along with the people involved. One of his most famous pictures, taken when he was 11 years old, is of Thurgood Marshall stepping off a train in Charleston, where he argued Briggs v. Elliott. In 1940, Marshall had started and served as executive director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Marshall became the first African-American chief justice of the United States In 1967.
“My young mind didn’t comprehend all of why I was there, but I knew it was important. And it was exciting,” Williams said.
At 14, Williams began working with Jet magazine. He also contributed to the Associated Press, as well as other black publications, such as the Baltimore Afro-American and the Pittsburgh Courier. “I was really sort of rare. Being a black person, publications came to me,” Williams said.
Few national news outlets covered early occurrences of race-related issues in the South. Instead of hiring black staff photographers, news outlets would usually have contacts in different places to use when needed.
Williams also photographed the 1955 Orangeburg Freedom Boycott. “This is before King and Parks. Chronologically speaking, this came first. The Montgomery Bus Boycott came five months later,” Williams said. Black citizens of Orangeburg, led by the Orangeburg NAACP chapter, refused to buy products from certain companies that opposed the efforts to desegregate South Carolina public schools.
To an extent, the boycott inconvenienced black participants. Many of those companies offered necessities, such as gas, dairy products, television, hardware supplies and medicine that boycotters had to then find elsewhere.
Despite the boycott’s success, many historians consider the Montgomery Bus Boycott the beginning of the national civil rights movement. “The Montgomery boycott was directly modeled after the one in Orangeburg. They just got more press,” Williams said.
Side note: The Montgomery Bus Boycott will serve as a template for a national economic boycott against racial violence and police brutality in recent years. The Injustice Boycott, lead by New York Daily Senior Justice Writer Shaun King, is set to launch online on Dec. 5, 2016, the anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The list of companies won’t be released until Dec. 5, but the boycott will target companies, corporations and state governments that have either profited from or done little to end systemic racism.
At this point, we had been talking about civil rights in South Carolina for four hours, but Williams still spoke with bold passion. He sat cross-legged in a computer chair between two desks, large monitors sitting on each. The only time he broke eye contact was to how my pictures and film negatives.
He designed his studio building, which sits a couple hundred feet from his house. An unusual round couch takes up much of the foyer, which is painted bright white. Two industrial size doors open up to a short driveway. An easel in a corner of the room displays a black and white picture of Williams’s childhood friend, Bud, playing a saxophone. An exercise bike rests in another corner.
Two or three rooms branch off the foyer; photography equipment, painting supplies and prints fill a few of the rooms, while stacks of miscellaneous materials lie against the walls between rooms. Several boxes of model cars rest on top of one another amidst the storage. As a boy, Williams dreamed of designing cars. He couldn’t afford to go to college to study auto engineering, though.
He instead studied art at Claflin University on a full-ride photography scholarship in Orangeburg from 1956 to 1960. He served as the photo editor of the student newspaper and yearbook for nearly all four years. “I always had my camera. I didn’t go anywhere without it,” Williams said.
While an undergraduate student, he participated in and documented the increase of student activism in Orangeburg, which preceded the well-known Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins.
Other civil rights events that Williams documented include Harvey Gantt’s integration of Clemson University in 1963. At this time, few colleges and universities desegregated without backlash, including violence, from white people and officials.
Williams had applied to Clemson, the well-known school for architecture, eight years before Gantt. The institution rejected him. “I’ve always been interested in what can be achieve when you are denied something,” Williams said. Since the 1960s, he has designed five residences, including his own. Ebony magazine featured his “Space Age Home” in its June 1977 issue.
One of Williams’s most famous photos, shot in the mid-‘60s is of a white man turning away two black students who wanted to worship at a white church. Jim Crow laws mandated public spaces, such as parks, municipal golf courses, state beaches, be segregated. Churches followed this practice.
“I got a tip that two Claflin students were going to do it, and I headed down town. I found them standing outside the church door. The mayor of Orangeburg, Clyde Fair, opens the door and he says, ‘No, you can’t come in. This is a segregated church. Go worship with your own people.”
Williams described the situation in a matter-of-fact tone, but five decades later a hint of pain still remained in his voice.
Williams worked as a stringer photographer for the AP, so he went home to develop the picture and then quickly drove to Columbia. “I was prohibited from going through The State newsroom, so instead I took the elevator to the AP office on the top floor. Soon after, they printed my picture in newspapers all around the world.”
He chuckled at the implication that his state’s largest newspaper denied him access while an international news outlet got his work published worldwide.
About a month later, an all-white draft board told him he had 30 days to make arrangement to leave his life in Orangeburg. “It was their way of punishing you if you didn’t comply to their lifestyle,” Williams said. He was forced to leave his photography business, but joined the Air Force, instead of being drafted.
A few years later, he returned to Orangeburg after being released from service due to injuries received during training. “I came back because Orangeburg is where the untold story was,” he said.
He reopened his studio and continued documenting civil rights events, including the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre.
South Carolina Highway Patrol officers shot and killed three unarmed African-American males and injured 27 other students from South Carolina State University and Claflin University. The shooting happened at South Carolina State University after approximately 200 students protested at a segregated Orangeburg bowling ally.
He also photographed the 1969 Charleston hospital workers’ strike. The 113-daylong effort, involving over 500 Charleston hospital workers, as well as Septima Poinsette Clark and Coretta Scott King, was one of the most important civil rights events pushing for economic justice. Williams’s only cover for Jet was of Coretta Scott King during the strike.
The last public race-related event Williams photographed was the July 1, 2000 removal of the Confederate battle flag that flew with the state and national flags on top of the South Carolina Statehouse. In 1962, South Carolina raised the flag on the Statehouse dome in celebration of the Civil War centennial. It was also an obvious opposition to the civil rights movement in South Carolina.
He doesn’t document civil rights protests or events now, despite the frequency of events over the last decade.
The 2015 Charleston Massacre occurred only 75 miles from his home in Orangeburg. The massacre involved the deaths of nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church during a Wednesday night Bible study. Self-proclaimed white supremacist Dylann Roof, 22, participated in Bible study for nearly an hour before he allegedly opened fire with the hopes of starting a race war. Roof’s competency hearing is scheduled for Nov. 16, 2016.
The tragedy evoked a national conversation about racism in South Carolina. But Williams didn’t photograph the funerals, vigils or public acts of solidarity, following the shooting.
“I wouldn’t have had access to create historically interesting pictures. I’d just have been taking the same pictures as everyone else with their smart phones,” he explained.
Williams doesn’t participate in today’s movement for black lives. He feels somewhat critical of aspects of the Black Lives Matter Movement, including the movement’s decentralized leadership. “But I do think the work is necessary. As a journalist, I appreciate the video footage. The truth always comes to light.”
Since 1995, he’s written eight books, seven of which he’s published himself.
Most of the books include his photographs and detail his experiences covering civil rights in South Carolina. He’s spent the past several years traveling the Southeast, speaking about his photography and the civil rights movement in South Carolina.
His most recent endeavor is called the FilmToaster. “Check this out,” he said excitedly as if he were revealing the invention for the first time. He rolled across his office in his computer chair to a station. On it sat a small digital camera attached to a contraption that resembled a mailbox. “It’s how I’m saving the almost million pictures [of mine].”
He invented the film scanning system, which digitizes film negatives faster than other popular methods. Released in 2015, the system involves a digital camera taking a picture of a negative through the box he designed and producing a digital format copy.
Williams has also published several books for other people. He owns a photography business, Cecil Williams Photography LLC. He shoots weddings, portraits and community events, which can sometimes get “boring, but they pay the bills.”
Williams’s mission is simple: He wants to bring awareness to South Carolina’s role as the origin of the civil rights movement.
“If we don’t know our history, we’re destined to repeat it. And the past is not a place we want to be.”
This article was originally featured on intern Kara Anderson’s blog Caring Across Colorlines.