Cecil Williams preserves South Carolina’s civil rights legacy
‘Our early civil rights pioneering has been lost … but people like me remember.’
On the cusp of his 85th year, photographer Cecil Williams has lived a history-making life. Williams vividly recalls both landmark events and quiet moments of the past century. A lifelong resident of Orangeburg, South Carolina, Williams has witnessed actions that have transformed the nation through unsung heroes of the civil rights movement from his home state.
Hailing from a family with ancestry that includes Black, white and Native American, Williams understood segregation and colorism from a young age. He got his start in photography at 9 years old. At 11, he was photographing weddings and soon became one of the only professional Black photographers in the region. By 14, Williams was working as a national correspondent for Jet magazine, documenting the fight for civil rights in Orangeburg years before some of the more well-known marches and protests.
Folkus is an ongoing series created with Getty Images that features Black photographers who put the focus on folks like us.
In 1952, Williams documented the first class-action lawsuit against public school segregation, Briggs v. Elliott. Harry Briggs was one of 20 parents who filed a petition against then-school board president R.W. Elliott, seeking to desegregate schools in Clarendon County, South Carolina. Two of three judges voted to uphold segregation and instead called for “equalization” of facilities in Black and white schools. Briggs brought about Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, ushering in the civil rights movement. “Education of children was the catalyst behind the most dramatic change in society and it took a long time to come around,” said Williams, whose mother, Ethel, was a schoolteacher.
Williams built his photography career, recording the 1955-56 Orangeburg economic boycotts and John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign, while studying art at Claflin University in Orangeburg. After graduating in 1960, Williams opened a photo studio, which he continues to run as part of his portrait, event and wedding photography business. In 2019, he opened Cecil Williams South Carolina Civil Rights Museum in Orangeburg, a photography and artifact gallery that also functions as a neighborhood community center.
In January, Claflin became one of the four recipients of the inaugural Getty Images Photo Archive Grant for Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The grant will help digitize Claflin University’s collection as photographed by Mr. Williams, which the photographer will curate. Here Williams looks back at what it was like to come of age at the dawn of the civil rights movement.
Could you share some memories from your childhood growing up in Orangeburg, South Carolina, during the 1940s?
Growing up in Orangeburg was a very happy experience, but I do remember that we — my brother and my sister and I — were living a life completely separate from the white community. There was separateness everywhere, from birth to death: separate churches, schools, playgrounds, tennis courts, libraries, doctors’ offices, building entrances and restrooms. It was a very undignified environment to grow up in. So with that in mind, very happy, but still yet.
As a child of segregation, I was always wondering when things would change. I was not trained to change something because you could only do that through the legal system. But I remember once riding my bicycle along Russell Street on my way home in the late afternoon. I passed a white playground with shiny new equipment, unlike the rusty playground equipment on Treadwell Street for Black children, which was about three miles away from my home. I stopped, laid my bike on the ground, crossed the street and went into the playground. I remember sliding down the shiny new slide board — no splinters from the rotting wood! — and swinging on the swings that did not squeak or rattle the framework. When I got home, my mother really chewed me out: ‘Boy, you better not get caught doing that!’
Could you share some of the wisdom your parents imparted on you?
I stand very heavily on the upbringing of my parents. I was lucky enough to have a mother and father who lived in the house. Our parents taught us not to look a white person in the eye if you’re walking down the sidewalk. If you were Black and went to a white person’s house, you go in the back door or the kitchen; never would you knock on the front door. Those were things passed down from my grandparents and into my mother and father to survive — what I would call accommodation to the segregation.
But my generation confronted the system. We began to march, demonstrate and participate in anti-segregation facilities against the establishment and the status quo. Our families encouraged us and admired us, telling us they wish they had done this in their era. My parents told me, ‘I like what you are doing, just be very careful and watch yourself.’
Can you tell us about how you got started as a photographer from a young age?
I started photography at 9 with a Kodak Baby Brownie camera that my brother passed on to me. The camera was a little magic box. From a very early age, I enjoyed creating things. I loved to draw. It seemed like I would be able to capture images. My brother was five years older than me and when I was 12, he left the South to seek better opportunities in the North. When he left, my parents allowed me to set up a darkroom in the house. I became more experienced and photographed my first wedding and made around $35 [$700 today]. I only spent about $9 or $10 in the game for the film, developer and flashbulbs. That set the pattern for my life in photography.
Can you speak about being a photojournalist working for the Black press in the 1950s, and the role it played?
Well that $35 I earned during that first wedding translated into a better camera. In those days, it wasn’t that I was so good in my photography when I connected with Jetmagazine. It was because I was the only photographer in this area. So when Jetcame to South Carolina over a case connected to Clarendon County, they wanted somebody who could work continuously because they had nobody here. Jet had a very hungry demand for news every week and they needed an army of people in the field. I became a national correspondent and was about one of 25 photographers around the world who regularly worked for Jet.
I was also moonlighting for the Baltimore Afro-American, Associated Press and Pittsburgh Courier. Jetchewed me out for sharing my pitches with other publications and warned me that Jet was not a reprint. They demanded that I send my negatives to them. That was causing a big dip in my income, so I started to wear two cameras so that I could shoot for other publications as well. Jetwould not send back your pictures; you would only see what you did after the magazine was published. They kept everything. When they went bankrupt, they sold the files, so there goes my pictures, negatives, everything.
Can you speak about the actions taken in Orangeburg to desegregate public schools before and after Brown v. Board of Education?
The biggest overstep of historians and journalists has been ignoring Briggs v. Elliott in 1952 — the first of five cases that laid the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Educationin 1954.
South Carolina Gov. [James] Byrnes and U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond were two of the most avowed segregationists in the state and urged the Supreme Court not to take Briggs because they didn’t want to see South Carolina’s racism smeared across the pages of history. Robert Carter at the NAACP persuaded Thurgood Marshall to take Brown because it was a Kansas case, and they might have a better chance with a case from the Midwest rather than the Deep South.
After the victory of Brown, Thurgood Marshall’s first trip was to South Carolina. He visited Orangeburg and spoke at Claflin University, where I photographed him for the second time. I was a senior in high school and photographed him at the school gymnasium. He asked the citizens of Orangeburg to what the Supreme Court had ruled — that segregation in schools was unconstitutional. So our parents were the guinea pigs. They signed a petition to integrate public schools only to be immediately fired from the jobs for doing so. Mortgages were foreclosed. This is what led to the Orangeburg economic boycott of 1955-56. We boycotted and held sit-ins against the merchants that fired our citizens from jobs.
Can you tell us about how Orangeburg was the hub for civil rights actions before it was known as a movement?
We started in what became known as the civil rights movement long before Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks. Our early civil rights pioneering has been lost or disregarded by historians, but people like me remember. We engaged in civil rights activities since President Harry S. Truman ordered the integration of the armed forces in 1948, mainly because a Batesville, South Carolina, police officer gouged out the eyes of a Black soldier when he was returning home after serving time in the Army.
At the request of Ralph Abernathy, we organized the Orangeburg economic boycott and it became the template for the Montgomery bus boycott. One of the reasons that South Carolina’s story is not taught is [the media]. In Montgomery, you had the emergence of a network-affiliated TV station with broadcasts that had national reach and larger newspapers reporting these stories. What we were doing in Orangeburg was being suppressed. We had a weekly newspaper that only ran ‘news of interest’ to colored people. It was only good news like weddings. If you were marching and demonstrating to overturn their so-called way of life, it never made the news. We were doing many things but it was never reported out.
Can you tell us about meeting John F. Kennedy in New York City, and photographing his presidential campaign?
I was in New York staying with my aunt and uncle during the Christmas holidays and read in the New York Times that Sen. John F. Kennedy from Massachusetts would be making an announcement at the Roosevelt Hotel. There was speculation it was to announce his candidacy for president. So I went over to the hotel with my Hasselblad camera, but I did not have my press credentials with me from Jet. Even in New York in 1960, I don’t know if there were any Blacks on newspapers. As I walked into the ballroom for the press conference, hotel security grabbed me by the arm and started to escort me out.
Just then Sen. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy were walking toward the podium and saw this. They gave me a seat in the front row, alongside Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, top journalists at the time, while all the photographers had to stand in the back. Kennedy gave me his business card for his private address in Hyannis Port [Massachusetts] and told me to stay in touch.
I became a close associate of his during the campaign. I got to fly with Sen. Kennedy on his private 10-seater jet while he traveled from Columbia, South Carolina, to Atlanta, Georgia, campaigning for the presidency. This meant a lot to me. I remember we were discussing the presidential race in a social studies class, and I was the only person who thought that John F. Kennedy would throw his hat in the ring. The professor chuckled and said that Kennedy was unelectable because he was Catholic. That’s why I gravitated toward covering that press conference in New York.
Cecil Williams is a Child of Segregation. But rather than having a negative impact, the racial barriers he endured as a youth propelled him upward … and forward with passion. Today his passion is directed toward establishing a museum of art and civil rights history for the people of Orangeburg, South Carolina.
Photo of Cecil by Claflin University | Story text by Miss Rosen