Cecil Williams: Through the Lens - DatelineCarolina

Part 1 of a two-part series

Cecil Williams: Through the Lens

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During his early days as a correspondent for Jet Magazine, Williams covered the desegregation protests and demonstrations in Orangeburg organized by SC State students. During his early days as a correspondent for Jet Magazine, Williams covered the desegregation protests and demonstrations in Orangeburg organized by SC State students.
One of Williams' first photographs: Attorney Thurgood Marshall stepping off the train in Charleston. Marshall was in the state to prepare arguments for Briggs v. Elliot in Clarendon County. Courtesy: Cecil Williams One of Williams' first photographs: Attorney Thurgood Marshall stepping off the train in Charleston. Marshall was in the state to prepare arguments for Briggs v. Elliot in Clarendon County. Courtesy: Cecil Williams
Williams' Claflin classmate, Tom Gaither, was one of the early proponents of the "Jail No Bail" concept used by many activists during the Civil Rights Movement. Courtesy: Cecil Williams Williams' Claflin classmate, Tom Gaither, was one of the early proponents of the "Jail No Bail" concept used by many activists during the Civil Rights Movement. Courtesy: Cecil Williams
Cecil Williams in 1968 Cecil Williams in 1968
Cecil Williams in Nov. 2016 showing off his first camera - a Kodak Baby Brownie. Cecil Williams in Nov. 2016 showing off his first camera - a Kodak Baby Brownie.

By Patrick Ingraham

The American Civil Rights movement is forever linked to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, and to places in Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina where dramatic events and protests took place.

But photographer Cecil Williams said historians should turn to South Carolina to find the real cradle of the civil rights movement.

Several years before the Montgomery bus boycott, ordinary people in two neighboring, predominantly black counties, Orangeburg and Clarendon, were laying the groundwork for the end of segregation.

Early Life

Williams was there to record in black-and-white most of those historic civil rights events.

Born in November 1937 in Orangeburg, Williams discovered his passion for photography and art when his brother gave him his first camera – a Kodak Baby Brownie - at the age of nine. Much of his practice and early lessons in photography took place at his home with family members, before he began “carving a career out” of photography.

“I ‘graduated’ at 10 and 11 to taking pictures for people and events,” Williams said. “I would go down to Edisto Gardens on Sundays and take pictures of people dressed up in their Sunday best, go to the drugstore, get my film developed and make a dollar or two, which at the time was a nice little chunk of pocket change.”

Williams said his parents were great supporters of his pursuits, purchasing better cameras and equipment for their son and even allowing him to create his own dark room in the family home.

Briggs v. Elliot and Brown v. Board

Williams marks 1951 as his, “entree into civil rights photography.”

A local NAACP official asked Williams to travel with him to Charleston to photograph Thurgood Marshall, a young lawyer traveling to the state to prepare arguments for Briggs v. Elliot.

That Clarendon County case, which began as a petition for a school bus for black schoolchildren, served as the precursor for the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that overturned segregation in public schools.

“At that age, all I could comprehend was that this big lawyer from New York was coming down to try this case.” Williams said. “From 1948 and 49 the case had grown from simply asking for a school bus for the African-American students to downright asking for the integration of public schools in 1951. The Briggs case is the first case in U.S. history that attacked legal segregation of schools.” Decades later, Marshall went on to become a member of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Aftermath of the Brown Ruling  

Following the Brown ruling in 1954, many of the African-Americans who had signed the Briggs petition lost their jobs and were ostracized or run out of the community. Williams says this development led to migration of the movement across county lines to Orangeburg.

That, too, was because of Marshall, said Williams, who had returned to South Carolina and encouraged the African-American citizens in Orangeburg to sign a petition to test the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Briggs case.

Again, those who had sought integration in the schools lost their jobs, were denied loans and suffered other forms of intimidation by the local White Citizens Council (WCC).

The local NAACP chapter started their own economic boycott against the local merchants and producers that supported or were affiliated with the WCC. Those companies included Coca-Cola and Sunbeam bread because they had refused to supply black-owned businesses.

SC State and Fred Moore

Students at Orangeburg’s historically black colleges, Claflin University and South Carolina State College (SCSC), joined the cause and began protesting and supporting the boycott. During this time, due to connections with his mentors and former Jet managing editor Francis Mitchell, Williams began his time as a stringer correspondent for Jet Magazine. He was still in high school.

“Jet is here covering the [protests] story but it’s an ongoing story, so they need somebody in the field, so they appointed me to send pictures to them on a regular basis,” Williams said.

Williams covered sit-ins and demonstrations by students in late 1955 and early 1956. Among the first major events he remembers covering for Jet were S.C. State protests organized by its student council president, Fred Moore.

Those protests were compounded by the ongoing boycott and dissatisfaction with university president B.C. Turner and his efforts to continually raise scholastic standards at the predominantly black university, despite the college’s “open door” admission policy. Students were also opposed to the school purchasing food from those associated with the White Citizens Council.

On April 9, 1956 a majority of the undergraduate students refused to eat from campus food services and attend classes. The protest carried on until  April 16, 1956 when Turner issued a statement telling students to return to classes or leave the campus.

Turner, an African-American who answered to an all-white board, was “stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Williams.

Under pressure from the board of trustees, Turner released a statement on April 25 saying the school had expelled Moore, a Charleston native, for his leadership role in the “insurrection” on April 25. Moore would have graduated in just two weeks.

Williams remembers standing on top of a car to snap a picture of Moore as he left campus.

“I was looking for an unusual angle, so I climbed up on top of this car to get above the crowds surrounding him,” Williams said. “He looked so solemn. Sometimes as a photographer or journalist you have to find the angle that will allow that picture to tell the story.”

College Years and More - Billy Graham, JFK and Integration

Williams said because of his photographs, involvement and interaction in the protests in 1956, his scholarship from S.C. State was rescinded. But he received a similar scholarship and was accepted into neighboring Claflin College, a private school where he enrolled in the fall of 1956.

Williams, who was still a stringer for Jet, also served as the photographer and editor for the Claflin yearbook and school newspaper.  Following his freshman year, Williams traveled to New York in July of 1957 on assignment for Jet to cover the Rev. Billy Graham conduct one of his evangelistic crusades at Madison Square Garden.

“Billy Graham was interesting to me because he always painted a rosy picture of America and religion, but never really would address racial tensions,” Williams said.   

Another major event during Williams' time with Jet was his relationship with 1960 presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy.

“I’m a college senior at this time and during the semester break I go up to New York,” Williams said. “While there, without my press credentials, I read that Senator Kennedy was going to make an announcement at the Roosevelt Hotel.”

As it turns out Kennedy was preparing to announce his intentions to run for president against Republican Richard Nixon.

“However, as Kennedy and Jacqueline came up to the podium to speak, I was being escorted out of the room by hotel security,” Williams said. “This was primarily because I was the only person of color there. But just as I was being ushered out, Kennedy stopped the hotel security, and we were able to talk and form a relationship.”

Williams said for the next two years he had very close access to Kennedy’s campaign and early days in the Oval office.

“Wherever he campaigned, I was able to go where other journalists couldn’t,” Williams said. “I could even go on his private 10-seater aircraft, the Caroline airplane.”

Williams covered the January 1963 integration at Clemson, where Harvey Gantt became the first African-American admitted into a public white university in South Carolina. He would later photograph Henrie Monteith Treadwell’s enrollment as one of the first three African-American students admitted to the University of South Carolina in fall 1963.

Sit-ins and jail, no bail

When students in Greensboro, North Carolina in February 1960 sat-in for racial integration at the S.H. Kress & Co. segregated lunch counter, Orangeburg students followed suit a month later, organizing sit ins at the local Kress lunch counter and forming the Orangeburg Student Movement Association to organize both S.C. State and Claflin students together.

“During this period of time there were still a lot of things going on because the people of color were unable in the mid-sixties – even though there was much progress – to still have access to a lot of things,” Williams said. “There were marches and demonstrations by students down Main Street in Orangeburg every day.”

Williams said during this time he photographed a man by the name of Tom Gaither, who was a classmate of Williams and student body president at Claflin.

Gaither was one of the “Friendship Nine” in Rock Hill, South Carolina, arrested after staging a sit-in at local McCrory’s lunch counter. Instead of paying bail and being released, the students chose to serve the judge's sentence of 30 days of hard labor. From this, Williams said Gaither and others spread the “Jail No Bail” concept and began organizing sit-ins across the state.

“It didn’t make sense to violate the law and then put money right back into the system,” Gaither said in a later interview with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Williams said this concept went mainstream in the Civil Rights movement when leaders like Dr. King began using the tactic in his demonstrations.

“During this time I also went to jail twice,” Williams said. “I was arrested those two times when I attempted to take photographs of the protests and marches. I was arrested by highway patrolmen and put in the city jail. Luckily both times I was bailed out within an hour.”

Coming Wednesday: Part 2, Through the Lens

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