PRAISE FOR CECIL WILLIAMS
Dr. William C. Hine, Retired SCSU
When we get to the 20th century, and especially the crucial years of the civil rights movement, South Carolina virtually disappears from the history books. It’s almost as if the civil rights years simply skipped the Palmetto State. The only state where civil rights events of any consequence occurred—or so it seems--were North Carolina, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama. Even books and articles that claim to provide comprehensive attention to civil rights neglect South Carolina.
Rarely do these studies mention the courageous black parents in Clarendon County who followed the leadership of the Rev. Joseph DeLaine in their effort to desegregate local public schools that resulted in the Brown v. Board of Education U. S. Supreme Court decision in 1954. It was South Carolina’s Governor Jimmy Byrnes who eagerly defended segregated schools and retained famed attorney John W. Davis in the failed attempt to maintain separate schools.
The selective buying campaign undertaken by the Orangeburg NAACP in 1955 that preceded the Montgomery Bus Boycott is not widely known. Because there are so many black and white people who have been born and raised in South Carolina in the last 30 to 40 years who are unaware of the state’s civil rights history, it is no surprise that they have not heard of the Orangeburg Massacre. It was one of the epic tragedies of the entire civil rights movement that left three young men dead and at least 28 wounded. Most historians and journalists have bypassed it as well.
Were it not for the “unforgettable” images of photographer Cecil Williams, we would be even more oblivious to the past and its consequences. Armed with his camera, Williams saved for posterity dozens of riveting photos that depicted so many of the key episodes in South Carolina’s difficult and tense transition from a rigidly segregated society to a more open one.
“A picture is worth a thousand words” is a trite cliché. But it accurately describes the work of Williams. He was present when NAACP Attorney Thurgood Marshall spoke at Claflin during the selective buying campaign in November 1955. Williams was there in April 1956 when Student Government Association President Fred Henderson Moore was expelled from South Carolina State for spearheading student support of the selective buying campaign and opposing the autocratic administration of
President Benner C. Turner. Williams took photo after photo of the non-violent protests and demonstrations during the Orangeburg Movement beginning with the sit-ins and mass arrests in February and March of 1960.
He was in Columbia in 1962 when 187 college and high school students were arrested and later convicted for peacefully protesting on the State House grounds.
Those convictions were overturned by the U. S. Supreme Court in 1963 in Edwards v. South Carolina. Williams was on the Clemson campus in January 1963 when Harvey Gantt—with the able assistance of Attorney Matthew Perry—became the first black student to attend that institution.
Williams was on the S. C. State campus in 1967 when students led by Isaac “Ike” Williams joined “the Cause,” that finally led to the forced retirement of College President Benner C. Turner. Williams documented the days before and after the Massacre in Orangeburg in 1968. He was in Charleston a year later for the strike of 400 poorly paid African American hospital workers against the Medical College of South Carolina. He recorded the Mother’s Day march of several thousand people led by
Coretta Scott King, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, and United Auto Workers Union President Walter Reuther.
Cecil Williams has preserved a rich legacy of the contributions of African Americans in South Carolina to the civil rights movement. Unfortunately too many people for too long have been blithely unaware of those people who made such enormous sacrifices to bring progress to this state and nation. But thanks to Cecil Williams and his memorable images, far more people are now aware of that history. It is truly unforgettable.
“One of the most significant visual historians in America.”
—Malverse Nicholson —
From the beginning of the second half of the 20th century through the present, Mr. Williams has been and currently is a tireless photographer of civil rights activities and the cause of justice. His pioneering efforts in recording history photographically has placed him in the unique position of having the largest and most complete archive on that subject in the state of South Carolina.
In the early 1950s when the civil rights movement was in its infancy, he began capturing images in his camera of Negroes who were attempting to improve their lives by rebelling against the establishment and the status quo. As a stringer for Jet Magazine and two African-American newspapers, The Pittsburgh Courier and the Baltimore Afro-American, he was the first person to photographically depict the struggle of the Negro in South Carolina. His photographs were the first to get out of the state and actually seen throughout the nation and the world. This was years before the mainstream media began covering African-American activities here.
His hometown of Orangeburg, the location of not one, but two predominantly black colleges, offered him a ready-made setting for covering racial tensions when they boiled over.
However, an important aspect of his photographs is the indisputable visual evidence they offer to African-American culture, heritage and history. Each significant desegregation milestone in this state – from Briggs vs. Elliott, the rise of student activism, the 1960 sit-ins, the integration of Clemson University, the integration of the University of South Carolina by Henri Monteith, the Charleston hospital workers’ strike, the Orangeburg Massacre and the rally to remove the Confederate flag from atop the capital building in Columbia – has been captured by Mr. Williams, not only in his books, but has been reprinted in hundreds of other books and publications throughout this country. Recently, Toward The Meeting of The Waters, by Winfred Moore and Orville Burton (among the most distinguished historians in the world) published by the University of South Carolina Press, featured every significant civil rights event photographed by Williams.
Mr. Williams was witness to the first wave of change creating the Civil Rights movement which really began in 1949 when the Rev. Joseph A. Delaine led a group of Negro parents in Clarendon County to file a suit for free bus transportation for school children. The case evolved into Briggs v. Elliott and a pre-trial hearing before Judge J. Waites Waring revealed that the 20 plaintiff already had “separate but equal schools.”
The case was refilled in the U.S. District Court and challenged the constitutionality of the long held “separate but equal” doctrine. Meanwhile, at the request of the president of the Orangeburg Chapter President of the NAACP, Mr. Williams accompanied him to Charleston to photograph the arrival of Thurgood Marshall who had come to prepare arguments for the Briggs v. Elliott case. Mr. Williams has pictures of the plaintiffs in that case as well as the house of Rev. Delaine, whose leadership inspired Briggs v. Elliott, which was burned to the ground in Summerton.
Later, Briggs v. Elliott was combined with four other cases and evolved into Brown v. Board of Education. With Thurgood Marshall representing the plaintiff, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation in public schools unconstitutional.
The second wave of events that help to create the Civil Rights movement in South Carolina can be traced back to July 16, 1955, in Orangeburg. The Rev. Matthew W. McCullum, James Sulton and the Rev. Francis Donlan led a group of citizens to petition the local school board calling for the integration of the school system by the fall term of 1955. Needless to say, those who signed the petition were fired from their jobs and evicted from houses they rented; some received mortgage foreclosures. He photographed this action, also.
Mr. Williams has pictures to show that the previous two events occurred prior to what is generally referred to as the beginning of the civil rights movement: The Montgomery Bus Boycott.
The Williams archives include activism in the ‘60s when students attempted to integrate Orangeburg churches, lunch counters, bowling facilities and hospitals.
Also, during that period, Harvey Gant became the first Black since Reconstruction to enroll in a white institution of higher education when, at 21 years old, he became a student at Clemson University in 1962. Although threats of violence were made, nothing materialized. Mr. Williams catalogued that event.
On occasion, Mr. Williams risked his life to record history. His life was threatened several times and he was arrested twice by law enforcement officials for taking photos of student demonstrations in the Orangeburg area.
However, the most troubling incident was the Feb. 8, 1968, confrontation between students and the South Carolina Highway Patrol at the edge of the South Carolina State campus. Three students were killed and 27 were wounded by the state police between 10:30 and 11 p.m. When Mr. Williams arrived on the scene about 7:30 a.m. the next day, he found what “looked like a battleground.” As the college maintenance staff began cleaning the area, Mr. Williams recovered eight spent shot gun shells, some pieces of paper and some wood. He photographed the items and took them to his photography studio.
Weeks later, after Time magazine ran the picture of the shells, the FBI paid him a visit and ordered him to make the shells available to the Bureau. He was later subpoenaed to appear at Florence District Court to testify in connection with the shells. The Grand Jury failed to indict the officers on any charges.
Mr. Williams was a yearbook photographer in 1968 and his photos of the February 8th Orangeburg Massacre offer an unparalleled perspective of the tragic events which occurred on the campus of South Carolina State University. In December 2008, he published Orangeburg 1968, a 248-page documentary covering the events leading to the Orangeburg Massacre.
In the ‘60s and through the 80s, he was the official yearbook photographer for South Carolina State University as well as its public relations department. A graduate of Claflin University in 1960 with a bachelor’s degree in art, he has been that school’s yearbook photographer since then. He was also the official photographer for the South Carolina NAACP and the National Conference of Black Mayors.
A seasoned, professional photographer and author, he is the publisher of two other books. In 2006, he authored “Out-of-the-Box in Dixie,” a sequel to “Freedom and Justice,” published in 1995 by Mercer University. Both publications are considered by many historians as the true origin of America’s civil rights movement.
By the age of nine, he had already begun his career in photography, having fallen in love with the profession through the acquisition of a hand-me-down camera from a family member. At age 15, he was working professionally as a freelance photographer for such publications as Jet, The Afro-American and the Pittsburg Courier as well as a stringer for the Associated Press.
His photographs have been exhibited at Furman University, the University of South Carolina, Rice Museum in Georgetown, Claflin University, Stanback Museum in Orangeburg, Museum of the South in Charlotte, the McKissick Museum in Columbia, the McCroy Museum and the State Museum in Columbia and at Clemson University. Also, Williams has lectured over 10 times at the University of South Carolina for various events and workshops
Mr. Williams is widely acclaimed and his photographs are broadly accepted. In 2005, he was the featured presenter during the Martin Luther King Jr. program at Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Prior to that, he was featured as one of four civil rights photographers in a screening of “Exposures of a Movement,” at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC. In October 1995, he was selected by the South Carolina Arts Commission as it artist in residence at William A. Perry School in Columbia. He was a photographer, participant and resource person for “Behind the Veil: African American Life in the Jim Crow South,” sponsored by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and a still photographer for Republic Pictures’ film: “Separate But Equal.”
Meanwhile, the South Carolina General Assembly honored William with a commendation for his powerful photographic exhibit: “Quiet Heroes.” He was selected to be honored in the South Carolina Hall of Fame and Claflin University awarded him its prestigious Presidential Citation for outstanding contributions to the college and community. He has been the recipient of several Freedom Fighter Awards from various chapters of the NAACP as well as the Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Service Award. In 2009, South Carolina State University cited him for his photographic contributions to the university, the state and the nation. He earned the South Carolina African-American Heritage Commission’s “Preserving Our Place in History Award.”
He is a member of St. Luke Presbyterian Church in Orangeburg and his wife, Barbara Johnson Williams, is a educator in the Orangeburg Public School System. Presently she serves as president of the Orangeburg Branch NAACP and was recently elected to serve on the Board of Trustees at Medical University of South Carolina. Recently, Williams was inducted by Delta Chi Boule as a member of Sigma-Pi-Phi Fraternity.
His work has enabled us to make significant advancements in social, educational and professional areas as well as forge a better future for out citizens. We are enduringly indebted to him for his consistent and detailed portrayal of events and he is a most worthy and deserving recipient of an honorary degree.
Indeed, as demonstrated by the above stated particulars, Cecil Williams is one of the most significant visual historians in America.
Dr. Bobby Donaldson, USC
Most accounts of the national Civil Rights Movement skip South Carolina. These accounts begin with Brown v. Board of Education, move on to Emmett Till or the Montgomery Bus Boycott, then touch on Little Rock Central High School before moving on to the lunch counters of Nashville and Greensboro. The rest of the story follows King’s career in Birmingham and Montgomery, with the Mississippi Freedom Summer sandwiched in between. Ole Miss and Alabama, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the SCLC and early SNCC make their appearances, but South Carolina usually does not.
While all of these events are important, overlooking South Carolina is a mistake. Cecil Williams takes a step toward setting things right with his contribution to the historical narrative, and historians should listen to him. He was, after all, an eyewitness to many of the important events of the Civil Rights Movement in the Palmetto State. From Summerton to Orangeburg, from Modjeska Simkins to Harvey Gantt, and from national figures like Thurgood Marshall and Stokely Carmichael to unknown high school students eager to contribute to the fight, Williams captured South Carolina’s Civil Rights Movement. He has fortunately preserved these images in this veritable civil rights archive. Whether documenting the struggle’s stirring successes or agonizing setbacks, Williams reveals how black South Carolinians courageously persevered. Now, through the penetrating lens of his camera, we can be eyewitnesses too.
Focusing the story of civil rights on South Carolina, as the Orangeburg native Williams does, corrects the standard truncated narrative that casts the Movement as a quest for voting and consumer rights largely confined to Mississippi and Alabama and centered around the activities of great male leaders. It highlights the relatively unknown but extraordinary civil rights champions, including many women, without whom the struggle would never have gotten off the ground. The story of South Carolina also demonstrates just how long ago the fight for civil rights began, and how it continues long after 1968. Because so much civil rights activity in the Palmetto State centered on economic issues – equal pay for teachers, safe working conditions for tobacco workers in the low country, adequate compensation for steel and hospital workers – the South Carolina story expands the meaning of the very phrase “civil rights.” The struggle extended to all aspects of human existence. It is long past time for South Carolina not only to take its place in the story of the national Civil Rights Movement, but to change the very parameters of that story.
It matters that perhaps the most important of the five cases combined in the Brown hearings – the one that Thurgood Marshall actually argued – was Briggs v. Elliot. Rev. J.A. DeLaine, an AME preacher and school teacher in Clarendon County, led the charge in the suit. It was in the Briggs case that NAACP lawyers Marshall and Robert L. Carter presented the psychological experiments of Kenneth and Mamie Clark. Their experiments with white and black dolls, demonstrating the damage that segregation did to the self-esteem of young African Americans, became one of the most noteworthy arguments within the Brown case. For their courage, Harry and Eliza Briggs lost their jobs. DeLaine and his family faced death threats and the destruction of their property. One of the most moving photographs in the Williams collection captures the DeLaine family staring at the rubble of their destroyed home. They had to leave South Carolina forever, but their lawsuit over educational equality sent shockwaves across the South, galvanizing white opposition and focusing the nation’s attention on the conditions that African Americans faced in southern schools.
It also matters that the NAACP, and Marshall in particular, spent considerable time in the state laying the legal foundation for the Movement. The Briggs case was not Marshall’s first in South Carolina. He argued Duval v. Seigneus, a case over equal pay for teachers, in Charleston in 1944. Previous court decisions in other parts of the country had ruled in favor of African American plaintiffs, but Duval was one of the first in the Deep South. The case also brought together Marshall and district judge J. Waties Waring. In 1947, Waring ruled that the state had to create a law school for African Americans. Also in 1947, Marshall argued, and Waring heard, the Elmore case, in which George Elmore successfully sued for the right to vote in the Democratic primary. The Elmore case came after the Supreme Court dismantled the white primary in other southern states. South Carolina’s whites were especially recalcitrant, however. The end of the white primary after Elmore did not automatically bring South Carolina’s African Americans into the political process, but it did signal the beginning of the end of legal restrictions on voting in one of the South’s most repressive political systems.
All of these cases took place before Brown. Although most accounts of the Civil Rights Movement focus on the SCLC and SNCC, the NAACP has a larger place than either of those two groups in the South Carolina Civil Rights Movement. Columbia lawyer and NAACP member Harold Boulware worked closely with Marshall in these cases, as did South Carolina NAACP executive director and civil rights firebrand Modjeska Simkins. The fight of course continued after 1954, but litigation in the state before that date, and the courage of citizens like DeLaine and Elmore, reveal that the struggle did not spring forth fully formed in the mid-1950s with the Brown case or the rise of Martin Luther King, Jr.
It matters that South Carolina’s African Americans had the courage not only to continue the fight, but to expand it even as the country’s attention turned toward Vietnam and away from civil rights issues. Some of the most dramatic incidents of the struggle occurred in South Carolina after what many would identify as the end of the Civil Rights Movement proper. The shocking police brutality of the Orangeburg Massacre, an event that received surprisingly little media attention, and the perpetrators’ escape from justice highlighted the extent to which South Carolina’s white power structure fought to maintain the state’s racial order. The armed standoff between Voorhees students and National Guard tanks followed in the Spring of 1969. That same Spring the MUSC hospital workers’ strike, an event that Williams thankfully covered and documents in this book, pointed to African Americans’ economic concerns and recalled the 1945 strike of Local 15 among Charleston’s American Tobacco workers. Strikes normally do not make it into the standard narrative of the Movement. For African Americans in South
Carolina, however, equal pay, safe working conditions, and equal opportunity for employment were all civil rights issues. Historians would do well to remember that a year after Martin Luther King, Jr. died supporting striking sanitation workers, Coretta Scott King marched with the hospital workers of Local 1199 in Charleston.
Cecil Williams photographed many of these extraordinary but largely unknown heroes. Williams followed Harvey Gantt to Clemson, and his camera caught the excitement and anxiety of the day. His photographs of an older Harry Briggs show a proud soldier of the fight who sacrificed much to place his name on the what was perhaps the most important civil rights case of the twentieth century. Williams also documented the 1955 Orangeburg boycott of businesses that supported the White Citizens’ Council. After Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, a delegation from Montgomery came to Orangeburg to learn how to execute an effective boycott. South Carolina State student Fred Moore, another subject of numerous Williams photographs, was one of the first student activists in the state. Williams gives a glimpse of twenty-one courageous teachers at Elloree Training School who lost their jobs for refusing to renounce their membership in the NAACP. His visual essay of the events surrounding the Orangeburg Massacre reveals the young faces of a grassroots movement and stands as a grim reminder of the price some paid for equal opportunity in South Carolina.
It even matters that not all of Williams’ photographs depict the civil rights struggle. As African Americans fought for civil rights, life went on. Black South Carolinians built lasting institutions and vibrant cultural spaces that not even the oppressive white social order could destroy. May Day pageants, homecoming parades, civic club gatherings, high school basketball games, weddings, and occasional visits from stars like Duke Ellington all happened while African Americans pushed for political, economic, and educational equality. Williams’ camera testifies to the strength of African American families and social institutions during a period when maintaining a sense of dignity and rhythm to daily life was exceptionally difficult.
These images, and the South Carolinians they depict, matter. Readers who lived through South Carolina’s Civil Rights Movement will not doubt see much that is familiar in these pages. At the same time, Williams’ unique perspective reveals aspects of the times and events than even other eyewitnesses might have missed, or more likely, simply remember differently. Williams therefore offers something familiar as well as something new. He bequeaths a valuable legacy to all those concerned with justice, equality, and the accomplishments of South Carolina’s African Americans. These accomplishments will hopefully become just as unforgettable as the images Williams presents as a testimony to the courage of African Americans in South Carolina.
Memorable Lessons of Life
Millicent Ellison Brown, Ph.D.
The most memorable events of my entire life seem to all be relegated to events occurring in my home state of South Carolina. No matter how many cities and states I have temporarily called home, or fascinating people and events I have encountered through the years; the 1950s and 1960s loom large. Cecil Williams’ photographs and recollections run concurrent to my own experiences and he remains a tether to what ideas and aspirations shaped my consciousness as a citizen, an adult, a parent, a student, a female of African descent.
To view the images, it is obvious that he managed to be where the action was. Who are the people who put themselves into these settings, why are they the ones involved in the actions captured? The pictures imply something about choice and agency, a basic principle of my youth, because nothing ever happened accidentally when it came to speaking up for civil rights and liberties. Life’s first lesson for me was the fact that our political reality results from deliberate action and engagement.
The Williams’ collection of historical events then go on to reveal a duplication of faces, places and events. While amassing perhaps thousands of images, the people become identifiable, predictable and recurrent. It is easy to draw inferences about who the standard bearers were, because they do not go away over time…lesson number two. Just as people stand the test of time, we are reminded by the graphic documentation that the scenes and strategies for change have been rather limited as well. The streets, the public places, the courtrooms remained the standing grounds for conveying the simplest of questions: are we not a part of the civic space promised to all who pledge allegiance to the creed of civic engagement and responsibility? Lesson number three, don’t give up too easily if your message is basic and clear.
Because looking back on history is a tricky balance of recall and romance, I continue to understand the struggle for justice through images of women, many women, though often unidentified by name. The capturing of these female participants over-shadow any belief that the peoples’ struggle was ever all male, life lesson number four.
Finally, it is always instructive to see what is NOT pictured. Our greatest benefit derived from the Williams gifts of time are perhaps the missing images of those absent from battles for truth, justice and whatever way freedom saw itself unfolding in mid -20th century South Carolina and sites beyond.Kudos to Cecil Williams, and his steadfast reflections that allow us to ponder these life lessons.
Lift Every Voice
Dr. Deloris Pringle, USC
There is a pressing need to collect and preserve South Carolina’s untold civil rights stories before a generation passes into history. South Carolina played a significant but largely unknown role in the civil rights movement. Time is of the essence in documenting the stories of elderly participants. Moreover, it is critical to help the next generation appreciate the struggles and the triumphs of this extraordinary period in our nation’s history.
Several years ago, Cecil participated in four-day national forum that brought together librarians, archivists, digital media specialists, members of the civil rights community, scholars, and educators to:
a. Develop a collaborative model for collecting, preserving, presenting, and teaching oral histories and artifacts related to the civil rights movement.
b. Develop a plan for utilizing the collaborative model to collect, preserve, present, and teach civil rights oral histories and artifacts in South Carolina.
c. Further develop the network of civil rights librarians, archivists, historians and other scholars, and educators in South Carolina to facilitate collection, preservation, presentation, and teaching of oral histories and artifacts.