- The Cecil Williams South Carolina Civil Rights Museum
- Museum virtual tour
- Freedom & Justice: Four Decades of the Civil Rights Struggle As Seen by a Black Photographer of the Deep South
- The FilmToaster scanning system
- (04:01) Growing up segregated
- (06:19) Photography at age 9
- (08:42) Documenting his community
- (11:10) Learning from his mentor
- (14:57) Photographing Thurgood Marshall
- (17:49) Shooting for national publications
- (22:29) Orangeburg, the 'epicenter' for civil rights
- (24:37) Integrating Clemson
- (28:51) Friendship with JFK
- (35:08) Photographing MLK
- (37:40) The Orangeburg Massacre
- (44:20) Racial harmony
- (49:20) A conflict between justice and injustice
- (51:31) Cecil's civil rights museum
- (55:30) Cecil's favorite image
For more than 40 years his lens captured the struggle for freedom, justice and equality. Today he's still fighting for those values. On this episode I’m having a conversation with renowned civil rights photographer, Cecil J. Williams.
Hello and welcome to Photo 365. My name is Andrew Haworth.
I first learned of Cecil Williams in 1997, when fresh out of journalism school, I returned to my hometown of Orangeburg, South Carolina, to work at the local newspaper. I was more interested in taking photos than being a reporter, so a colleague recommended I pick up a copy of Cecil’s then recently published book, Freedom and Justice: Four Decades of the Civil Rights Struggle As Seen by a Black Photographer of the Deep South.
I poured over that book and the images it contained. It was one of the only photography books I owned for several years, and it provided me with not only a foundation in photojournalism, but it taught me a great deal about the civil rights movement, particularly here in my hometown of Orangeburg. You could say, it “woke” me up.
At some point, I worked up the nerve to contact Cecil, who still works in Orangeburg as a commercial photographer. I paid him a visit, under the guise of having him scan and print some negatives for me. We hit it off and became great friends, bonding over digital photography, cameras, cars and Apple products. He’d even hire me from time-to-time as a second shooter for weddings and events he was covering.
On September 11, 2001, I was at Cecil’s home developing a website for him, when we both watched the World Trade Center fall. Four years later, on another day I won’t forget, Cecil photographed my wedding.
Born in 1937, Cecil grew up during Jim Crow segregation in Orangeburg, a city located in the midlands of South Carolina. By age 9 he’d learned photography, honing his skills shooting candids of daily life in his community. As the early moments of the civil rights movement began stirring in the 1940s, his unique skill set landed him a job as a correspondent for Jet magazine at age 14.
For the next 40 years, he’d capture every major moment of the struggle for equality in South Carolina, and beyond. From the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, to the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, an event that left three young men dead, and injured nearly 30 students.
Along the way Cecil befriended John F. Kennedy. He photographed Sam Cooke, Althea Gibson, Martin Luther King Jr., and countless other leaders.
After writing Freedom & Justice, Cecil created his own publishing company, and has gone on to write three more books, while publishing more than 200 for other clients. He’s also an inventor, and his most recent product, the FilmToaster, is designed to help photographers quickly digitize film.
In recent years Cecil’s photography has been exposed to a new generation of activists thanks to an iconic, meme-ready image of him in 1956 defiantly drinking from a “whites only” water fountain. This image routinely shows up on social media, and according to one website, it “breaks the Internet every February” during Black History Month.
Image captured by Rendall Harper, a friend of the photographer. (1956)
Just last year, he opened the Cecil Williams South Carolina Civil Rights Museum, the first of its kind in the state.
Andy: Cecil, it’s always a pleasure to be speaking with you, welcome to the show.
Cecil: Well, thank you, Andrew. It's a beautiful day in Orangeburg, and I want to thank you for being here. And I want to thank you for inviting me.
Andy: Just last year we passed the 25-year-anniversary of the printing of your first book, Freedom and Justice, so I went back and page-by-page revisited the photos and your writing, and I was particularly struck by the photos you shot when you were just a child and a teen. What was your childhood like here?
Cecil: Life for me when I was growing up in Orangeburg was pretty much like most other people of color. In the Orangeburg community, we lived in the era of segregation. Everything was separate, supposed to be equal, but it wasn't. Our schools were not as nearly well equipped. But there were separate playgrounds.
So as a child, I had to really just take advantage of whatever opportunities there were out there in playing, and in most of my schooling, and my education. And pretty much, I think that I had a happy childhood. It was one where on the learning experiences growing up in this community, the segregation that we encountered was explained to me by my mother, who by the way, her family comes from a background of being a white, Native American, and black. And so it was difficult to completely comprehend that until I came of age and was able to understand really what this is all about.
Living in Orangeburg, South Carolina, one of the states that was part of the Confederacy, and living up and growing among maybe the great-great-grandchildren of those who fought against the union, and, and of course lost. But Orangeburg still yet to me was a place where I learned so many important experiences, of living with other people, and realizing that, in spite of the circumstances, that I did have opportunities that opened up for me, especially when I started photography, which I did at nine years old.
Andy: Nine years old? How did you get access to a camera at such a young age?
Cecil: My brother was the holder of the Kodak Baby Brownie, you know. My mother had bought it from Sears Roebuck for $2.50. And he was the one taking pictures around the house. But he took a liking to music, and blowing the saxophone. And he gave me that camera.
Because I like to sketch and just drew things as a child, the camera opened up a new opportunity for me, so I immediately gravitated towards it, because it could do what I wanted to do, and was an exercise in expressing myself better. Also, I discovered at nine years old, that I could make a few dollars using my camera, at nine years old, I would go to the Edisto Gardens on Sundays, and take pictures of people who were dressed up in their fine clothing, visiting the gardens, and the roses and so forth. And I would charge them $1 take their picture, have the pictures developed, and then send them back to them. So that was very encouraging to me, because in a way I was developing my craft, but I was also earning money.
James Sultan, Unconquerable Foe Against Jim Crow (1956)
And $1 back during those days, of course, you know, had a different value to it than $1 today. It meant so much for a youth of 9-10 years old to be earning anything. Sometimes I would make as much as $10, which today I think could be an equivalent maybe $100. So that was quite an extraordinary experience for a young man or person growing up to really be able to, you know, bring that kind of income, you know, at my age. It enabled me to buy better cameras.
It enabled me to buy a camera later that had a flash unit, because my first camera did not have a flash unit. And I could not take pictures in adverse lighting situations or in the evening or after dark. So I was able to support my newly-found hobby that had has slowly began to turn into an occupation.
Andy: You were essentially a documentary photographer at age 9, and you have these now-historic photos of the community that you grew up in, the Orangeburg community. Were you thinking at even that young age that you were saving a part of history or documenting life?
Cecil: Unfortunately, no, because actually had I known that my life would have taken the way that it did, and I’d become more of a photojournalist and a historian, as it turns out, I think I would have taken even more, and I would concentrated on other things that really now are a part of history, and mainstream history, and in history books.
But at that age a lot of times you don't really have that much thought about the future, you can kind of really deal with the here and the now. And so it was very encouraging to me to really be able to, again, see what photography and the magic that it could occur by taking a picture. That was fascinating to me.
At first I had my pictures developed my film developed at a drugstore. And then around 11 years old, my parents allow me to set up a darkroom in the family house over on Quick Street. And that went even a step further towards cementing my real relationship with photography, and making it what has become my profession.
Imagine you’re an 11-year-old, you might say with your own private man cave, and being able to process pictures and discover the magic. A lot of chemistry was involved course. And I was beginning to learn that. But I crafted all of the technical aspects of photography and was able to comprehend how the magic in capturing a picture and shooting it and starting out with film, and then ending up with a photograph and what that was all about. It was fascinating to me.
And as I'm sitting here now, reflecting on those years, I go back to that time in that period in my life that is so clear to me. Even after all these years.
Andy: In your book, you mention the influence of one of your photographic mentors, Edward C. Jones, and how he exposed you to the movement that would eventually lead to Brown vs. Board of Education. How did he influence you?
Cecil: I was introduced to what was happening in Clarendon county, Summerton, in South Carolina, of course, being the the name of the city, in two different ways.
Demonstrations Against Segregation, Columbia, S.C. (1962)
Number one, E.C. Jones, frequently on Sundays, was contacted by the NAACP, to come into Clarendon county to take pictures. During those days, photography was nowhere near as simple as it is today, you had to take a lot of film. And the film was put in two carriers that had to be inserted in the camera itself. And you'd really only have a film holder, with two pieces of film. So it meant that you really had to carry a lot of film, just to accompany whatever normal pictures you would take.
So that made E.C. Jones almost always dependent on someone to assist him. So my work with him moved from just occasionally taking pictures for the State College yearbook in Orangeburg, he occasionally would come by on Sundays, pick me up, and then take me into Clarendon County, where he took pictures of what is known now, as the Briggs vs. Elliot petitioners.
What was important about these people in Clarendon county is that this group of parents, some of them without anymore than a 10th grade education — farmers, people who had a very limited or educational resources and background — started the first case in history that attacked segregation in public education. And the importance of that case was that it later was combined with five other cases, and collectively, it becomes known as Brown vs. Board of Education.
Brown vs. Board of Education, decided upon by the Supreme Court on May 17, 1954, was one of the most important Supreme Court decisions. And it really started the entire movement towards, you might say freedom, justice, and equality for African Americans. It was kind of the beginning, it was like a point in history, where things reached the bottom and then began to rise.
And so it was with that case called Briggs vs. Elliot. But the other reason that I became interested in Briggs vs. Elliot, was because my mother taught with the Rev J. A. DeLaine.
J. A. DeLaine, while not being a signer of the petition, was the NAACP person in Clarendon County. And also he was a minister, and really, he was the one that gathered the people together to sign the petition. And so his life, from the time that he started doing that, was always one that he had problems, that people tried to run him out of the community. They will not sell him seeds to do his farming. And that was also happening to all the petitioners who had signed a petition as well. Ultimately, he was run out of Clarendon County. He received death threats. And again, one of those heroes that you don't see a lot of history books, but a person so much deserving his place in history.
So from E.C. Jones, owner of Majestic Studios, and my mother, a school teacher who taught with Rev. DeLaine, when one of the schools that he was attached to, that's how I became involved in the Briggs vs. Elliot case on that petition.
Andy: You were immersed in it at a very early age. A photo that you point to quite often, is your 1952 image of Thurgood Marshall arriving in Charleston, and he’s getting off the train. How old were you when you shot that?
Cecil: I was around 13 years old. During those days, I didn't do a great job of always writing down the dates when I was taking pictures.
Andy: You’re 13 years old, using a film camera, shooting at night, and Thurgood Marshall is looking directly into your lens. It’s an amazing image.
Cecil: Yes, and it turns out that I was the only person out with a camera or taking him. I was taken to Charleston, by the president of the NAACP, a gentleman, a an attorney, who's the president, and also he had a law practice here. His last name was Morgan. And he wanted to record this. And we really wanted to stay the next day to see the Briggs vs. Elliot case, really, as it came into being at the trial going on there. But it turned out that we didn’t, but we met Thurgood Marshall at the train, and kind of give you an idea of how different photography was then, as it is now, you know, in order to take a picture at nighttime or under adverse conditions, you had to use a flash bulb to put into the flash attachment, which was connected to the camera.
Thurgood Marshall Arriving in Charleston for the Briggs vs. Elliott Hearing (1951)
Even though the film was relatively inexpensive, you could buy a roll of film for around 55 cents, I believe, but a flashbulb even then cost $1. The bad thing about the flashbulb is that once you press the shutter and it flashes, that’s it, the flashbulb is good, you have to throw it away.
And so that's why I have this famous attorney getting off the train in Charleston, I took one film and that film, after developing it became so important. That picture has appeared in about 60 history books besides my own books that I have written. But um, it marked again a point when this very famous attorney was handling this case for the NAACP, a gentleman who later becomes on the Supreme Court himself, Thurgood Marshall, where he is engaged in again suing on behalf of the Briggs vs. Elliot citizens, trying to get better educational opportunities for the people of Clarendon County and their children.
Andy: People were taking notice of your work, and that’s around the time you started working for Jet magazine? How did you get involved with them?
Cecil: There is an incident happening in Orangeburg, because on the background of Thurgood Marshall after winning the Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. Board of Education, one of the first places he comes back to is South Carolina. And one of the first places he spoke was at Claflin University. And to the people of Orangeburg, he encouraged the people in Orangeburg, to test what the Supreme Court had ruled there, segregation in public education is unconstitutional. So Orangeburgers were among the first in the nation to test what the Supreme Court had ruled upon.
Now, I like to mention too, that this is before there's even a person named Martin Luther King, who has entered, you might say, the civil rights movement mix of events. There's no Montgomery bus boycott, none of that has happened. So when Thurgood Marshall speaks to the people in Orangeburg, and they set out to test the Supreme Court ruling, they signed a petition to Orangeburg County School District Five for their children to attend the public schools. And as soon as they did, they were fired from their jobs. Orangeburgers formed a very unique type of strategy. That strategy, a boycott was unique to the struggles for our freedom and justice, inequality, especially the protests and things going on, handled by people all, again, trying to achieve freedoms and the things that we did gain in civil rights.
So Jet is attracted to this particular type of protest. And this particular type of strategy, They come into Orangeburg. And this type of strategy is so unique, that they wanted consistent coverage of what was happening here, and in Orangeburg and Calhoun County.
I might not have been the best photographer in Orangeburg, but probably I was the only photographer in Orangeburg of color. And so they assigned me that time to be an official correspondent for them. And I got a letter a week later after they left. And so at 14 years old, I become, really, I'm a card carrying official correspondent for a national publication. At the same time, I also share my pictures with newspapers such as the Afro American and the Pittsburgh Courier, which were black weekly newspapers that really talked about what was happening in black America. And also, occasionally, I took pictures for the Associated Press.
It was interesting at the time, that the Associated Press seemed to be more liberal minded. For example, the Bureau of the Associated Press in South Carolina was located on the top floor of the state newspaper. So when I took something very interesting, I would get in my car. This is about when I'm 15 or 16 years old drive to Columbia. And I could not go into the state newspaper room, because blacks weren't allowed in places like that, in in many public and private, other kinds of places we just weren't. So in addition to restaurants and hotels and motels, and schools and other things, I couldn’t go into a relatively large newspaper bureau office. But I would go in the side, the catch the elevator, and go upstairs where the Associated Press was. And I was welcome. Because they respected me as a journalist, and did not put barriers against me being a person of color. And so I would often sell my pictures, and at the time they would pay from $35 to about $75 per picture. $35, of course, then was you know, a lot more, you know, a very good amount for picture taken doing given the date.
So, I was then becoming a photojournalist. And again, so important, because many of the marches and demonstrations that were going on at that time, there were no white press covering them. In fact, often, there will be a march of several 100 people here in Orangeburg and Columbia and Charleston and there will be absolutely nothing in the paper about that. And that was why coverage by journalists like me was so important to preserve those moments in history.
Andy: You’ve called Orangeburg the “epicenter” of the civil rights movement. What makes Orangeburg the epicenter? I’d be willing to guess if they didn’t live here, most folks wouldn’t know about Orangeburg.
Cecil: The Orangeburg and Clarendon County and Summerton area, and say if you want to push it a bit to Columbia in the Midlands, if you would reach out 150 to 200 miles in either direction, you would have of course, what was going on, you know, Greensboro, North Carolina, if you reached out a bit, in Atlanta, Georgia, reached out a bit in Montgomery, Alabama.
And so we were right in the middle of this. And then if you reach in any direction, or north, south, east or west, we were right in the middle, For a lot of years, I really regretted that maybe I had not come of age earlier. So that we'd been able to go to Montgomery when Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks engaged in the Montgomery bus boycott. But later, I found out that I was so fortunate to be right in the middle of where it all began.
Because we here in South Carolina, most of the important and trendsetting and newsworthy things that were happening in civil rights, we were engaged in these kind of activities, even before journalists and historians referred to these events as civil rights events. To us they were human rights events. I would venture to say that the American Civil Rights movement that we all know about, had his origin in South Carolina, not Montgomery, Alabama. Chronologically, South Carolina, so many things occurred. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks come alive in history on December 1 1955. And, of course, we're here in Orangeburg, we go back to 1949, to 1954. With so many things that really change the course of history, so many things that really involved constitutional change on both the state level, as well as the federal level, again, with Brown versus Board of Education.
Andy: Orangeburg has two historically black colleges and universities, and you got your art degree from one of them, Claflin, but your passion was architecture, and Clemson was one of the few schools at that time that offered an architecture degree. You couldn’t attend Clemson because of your race, but you did photograph the first black student who attended Clemson. What was that experience like?
Cecil: That was a wonderful day. South Carolina, in its high education had also barred people of color. When I was a high school senior, I wrote to Clemson because I really didn't think I could make a living in photography. And I wanted to be an architect. And this was an extension of my drawing and that kind of thing. But I can't say that Clemson rejected me that they just very simply would not even send me the application blank. So so I couldn't even reply. My guidance counselor tried to get an application. And whenever you would put on there Wilkinson High School, they knew that was a black school.
Harvey Gantt and the Sea of Reporters (1963)
But later on, it became my great pleasure to be there. In fact, one of the three people of color on Clemson when Harvey Gantt becomes the first person since, again, reconstruction to really set foot on become a student at a major higher education institution, Clemson University. This was a proud moment in South Carolina's history, because there was not any incident of again, violence, or even a threat of violence.
People were so nice, I was treated with great respect. I was even put up on the campus of Clemson because again, I get there on a Sunday, I remember was a cold day in February, and again, the very next morning early, here comes Harvey Gantt getting out of his attorney's car, and walking on the campus of Clemson University.
They were 150 journalists, the journalists covering Harvey Gantt is amazing. When I look back at one of my pictures, which is called “Harvey Gantt and the Sea of Reporters,” The more and more I look at that picture, and looking at it for perspective, or here in 2021. The more I wonder how much this picture will mean, in the future, when we reflect back on what was happening in the second half of the 20th century, when a person of color is integrating a major university. Is it possible that 150 journalists from every country in the world who have come into Clemson, South Carolina, and Clemson University and it’s the biggest story in the country, to see a person go to college. And the main difference is the fact that he is a person of color?
It gets more impossible to believe that there was a time in our history, when that would make major news. NBC was there, CBS, there was no CNN at the time. And of course, this is in 1962-1963. And again, but America at this time is discovering Harvey Gantt, but I discovered Harvey Gantt three years earlier, when he was engaged in the legal battles trying to get to go to Clemson. I photographed him for Jet at his home.
Actually, when he got out of high school, he was trying to go to Clemson he immediately not wanting to lose time, went to a school studying architecture out of state. But finally, the district courts in South Carolina, Anderson, South Carolina district federal court, admitted him. And it was, again, a very, very powerful story for Jet; I had like seven pages in Jet magazine at the time again, of Harvey Gantt, peacefully integrating Clemson University.
Andy: Let’s talk about John F. Kennedy. In Freedom and Justice you mention that your most treasured memory is of JFK and you’ve called him a “friend and an idol.” How did you develop a relationship with John F. Kennedy?
Cecil: When I was a junior or senior at Claflin University, we were approaching the new presidential race and people like Richard Nixon or, and and Humphrey, and number of persons or senators and of course, well, non-political people were contemplating running for the presidency. Also, John F. Kennedy, had been frequently talked about entering the presidential race as well. This will be in the 1960 presidential election year.
And he was my, really my pick, if he were going to really be a candidate. But at the time, when I was a senior, he had not thrown his hat into the ring. I was visiting my aunt and uncle during the semester break in New York, and I read in the newspaper that Senator John F. Kennedy, was going to appear at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. And at the time, I did not have my press pass with me. But I went down there with my twin lens reflex camera to photograph him. In 1960, it is a time where even in New York, there are very few black correspondents. And so the hotel room, where Kennedy was going to be coming to speak, was full of journalists. But it turned out when I entered, I was the only person of color. Hotel security, noticed me. And they came over to me and began taking me out. They didn't ask me any questions. They just saying you have to go and they escorted me out, even though I had a camera in my hand. Just as they were escorting me out Senator Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy were coming up to the podium. And they saw this going on, and they stopped them. And anyway, for a few minutes right in front of a whole roomful of journalists are right near the front where the entrance was. And he caught me just in time, because I think had I reached the door there. It would not have made as good, maybe a picture opportunity. But we talked for a minute or two. And he asked, you know, what was I doing there? And you know, he said, that's a nice camera you got you know, and we have some small conversation. He really saved me from really being thrown out of the press conference.
He reached out his wallet and pulled out his personal identification address and telephone number at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. And from that moment on, I became a good acquaintance of the person that would become the next president of the United States. I communicated with him several times; I sent my pictures to him. And once I had the opportunity to fly from Atlanta to Columbia, where he was campaigning, and I was one of the few correspondents who were on his 10-seater airplane that he campaigned with. So over the course of about eight or nine months, I had become pretty good acquaintance of, again, the person who became one of our greatest presidents.
Unfortunately, he was assassinated after serving only three years. And again, I was so sorry to see that happen. But I liked Kennedy on the standpoint that I felt that he would have been the best hope for African Americans to really bring about the changes in civil rights and other legislation that he might be able to persuade Congress to pass. But his life was cut short by that the assassination.
However, a former segregationist, President Johnson, really took the legislature, the congressmen and the senators and the house of representatives and senators are into pass on legislation that really probably went beyond what Kennedy was trying to get passed and became really the president that was able to have the Civil Rights Act of 1963, the Voting Rights Act 63, 64, 65 passed. And that really kind of changed America from all the legislation that happened there. But again, some of my favorite memories again that time went on be when this larger than life figure, JFK, again, becomes a very good friend and a very good acquaintance.
Senator John F. Kennedy (1962)
Andy: Those images of JFK, there’s a magical quality to them. It’s like you can almost reach out and touch him in these pictures.
Cecil: I think the mind plays tricks on us. I too get that same feeling from it. Each picture just is really um, you know, as I look at the negatives, by the way, my negatives, oh, one of the Kennedys, again, beginning to fee It is one of the reasons why later on five years ago, I developed a device called the film toaster to address the issue of having to scan my family and just scan it very rapidly to save and preserve the film, images, of course, photograph all through my life because, again, a lot of people don't realize it, but digital came about just about 1996. It was pretty well developed about 2000. And I transition from using film to digital in 2000. So still yet, you know, it's really been really about 22-23 years where we have this phenomenal way of capturing images that we use to date, and has also helped to popularize again, photography, wherein everyone has a digital camera, or cell phone that can take fairly good photographs.
Andy: You also photographed Martin Luther King several times?
Cecil: Martin Luther King came to Claflin University when I was a student in 1960. At that time, he had already won the Nobel Peace Prize and was a very, again the symbol of civil rights in America. And I photographed him on the campus of Claflin University. Then, several times, he came to get to Orangeburg and I photographed him at our Trinity. And then I photographed him in Columbia, South Carolina. And when I photographed him in Columbia, South Carolina, I chose to put my still camera down and I used a 16 millimeter bill and how it also the last time I filmed him was I was in Atlanta, going to a Fry's camera store to buy some professional equipment. And unexpectedly, I saw this group of people coming towards me, and margin. And so I parked my car on the side of the road got out, and with my 16 millimeter camera, started filming them. As they came closer, I realized it was Martin Luther King, who was marching and leading the March. So that was kind of unexpected. So you know, I really encountered him about four times, but not to take anything away from him. But often as I do presentations, I remind the people that I'm speaking with that, again, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks and agree and brave people, Montgomery, Alabama, they made a great impact on history is just that I tried to emphasize and talk about the South Carolina perspective. Because the history where we become involved in a civil rights movement comes earlier than that of Martin Luther King, who came to being about December 1, 1955.
Andy: 1968 was a violent year in American history. Martin Luther King was assassinated, we had Kent State, Vietnam, but in February of 1968, a group of protestors tried to integrate the local bowling alley, and that resulted in the event now known as the Orangeburg Massacre. That’s a day that still haunts you, and many people in the community.
Cecil: Several times in my career as a photographer. My parents had again, asked me to be very careful what I was doing. I went to jail twice while photographing events here in Orangeburg, but one of the events where I nearly In fact, lost my life, was on February 8, 1968.
At the time, I was the photographer for both South Carolina State and Claflin University. I did their yearbook photography, so wherever the students were, I was as well. I was on the campus when the students who were at that time being held at the campus and not being able to go into the downtown areas, because all the entrances and exits were covered by law enforcement. And on Highway 601 you had the law enforcement officers you had the National Guard Highway Patrol, city firemen and city police officers, and also contingents from SLED. But I got hungry around 7:30 or so and I left the campus and I went to get something to eat. Then when I tried to get back on, I could not get back on, I could not get back on on highway 601 because it was completely blocked. I tried to go back on to other areas on Buckley Street. I could not get back on State College campus to continue taking pictures. And there was also one little spot right off of Russell Street, when I was a student at Felton, I used to walk home from Felton and it was a place where two fences came together. And if you were very small as I was I could kind of squeeze through where these two fence came together. But that was also covered by a South Carolina State University, law enforcement officer and he would not let me get on.
There were protecting people getting on and off because several days earlier, some person said come to the campus. And a, again, we're up to no good and they were chased off the campus. And I think they also fired a shot when they were on the campus. But on February 8, about 930, the South Carolina Hollywood trauma under the direction of Pete strong, who hated sled, took day he ordered the patrolman to load their guns would shotgun shells, and march up on the campus. In doing so, they killed three students, and injured 28. They fired into a crowd of 150 students who were unarmed. That event has come to be known as the Orangeburg Massacre. And indeed, it was a massacre.
And that was a closest call you might say I ever had, in that, I was fortunate enough not to be there because I believe that had I been there I could possibly have been wounded or shot myself. It is a very emotional event because again, I knew all three of the students. I’d photographed Smith, and Middleton and Hamilton. The two state college students were on the football team. And I’d also photographed Middleton at on the football team and I photographed him close up for the yearbook at Wilkinson High School. So I know all three of them. I mean, you know not, you know, as someone that I encounter every day, but there were people that you know, I often saw in my work for the yearbooks that I did photography for.
But to see them murdered at the hands of law enforcement was indeed something that affected me for a long time. And I believe that it was a senseless act, something that really has not been dealt with a record with the how the highway patrolmen were found to be innocent. And I believe that was a tragedy that, again, where it was no doubt that they were the ones that killed the students. The FBI, over the years have thought about bringing this to the forefront again, but chose not to. So it's really an event that although it happened so many years ago, 1968, is something that really is still has an open end to it so to speak. The families were never compensated compensated for their losses, and again, the highway patrol one got away scot-free.
Evidence of Death (1968)
Andy: In your first book you described the campus as “ground zero,” and you wrote about how horrifying the scene was.
Cecil: At night when I was there, of course, you had your students really engaged in what you could describe as really a bonfire. It was a gala moment. And they were having a good time they were running around. They were chanting at the police officers. Again, in their hearts, they knew they had the right to bowl. Here it was in South Carolina 1968 wherein across America, bowling alleys and restaurants at open up to people of color. But not here.
In Orangeburg, there was a segregated bowling alley that that was allowed to exist. And so that's why the students were so profound in their beliefs that they were doing the right thing, but they did not have any weapons. Law enforcement tried to paint the picture that they were really returning the fire, so to speak, but there were no guns ever found. And again, it was a senseless act of murder on behalf of law enforcement officers way back there during that period, that so many people have forgotten about it.
In the context of today, what's happened across America, things like that aren’t often remembered. That has been many, many years in the making that law enforcement officers have historically not treated people of color with respect and dignity.
Andy: That ties into my next question. In the introduction of Freedom and Justice you said it was written “at a time when our nation still struggles with the issue of race,” and your hope was that the book would promote racial harmony.
Now, more than a quarter of a century later, we’re still struggling with race. For example, we just passed the one year anniversary of the death of George Floyd, which touched off months of protest, and the country seems more divided than ever.
What is it going to take to achieve harmony?
Cecil: Unfortunately, I think that it's gonna be quite a long time, before really, people in this country really begin to respect each other as it should be. It's just not happening. I thought that really we had just about reached the point where color and complexion and race and these small matters, like that were behind us. But during four years of the Trump presidency, he brought that back all over again, almost to a point where I thought that we had to maybe really engage in another civil rights battle of this generation.
But evidently, those racists had always been there. But he just gave them a reason, he encouraged them, you might say, to speak out, and have spoken out now. And they have repositioned themselves. And so many Republicans who formerly were very great representatives for this country who believed in freedom and democracy have also really been attracted by former President Trump, and are now following his ways to really bring down the values of this country.
Here we were on the way to achieving freedom, justice, equality for everyone. It’s so unfortunate, but I look at it like this: During the trial of the Brown versus Board of Education case, John Davis, who opposed of course, and was defending the South. In that case, once had a conversation with Thurgood Marshall. And he asked Thurgood Marshall, ‘if you won this case, how many years do you think before we will have a colorblind America?’ And that was in 1954. And Thurgood Marshall replied, ‘100 years.’ It appears that Thurgood Marshall might not have been too wrong because it looks like it might be the year 2054 before we achieve a colorblind society.
And that's unfortunate, because so much time will be wasted. We could be working on the great problems and issues that face mankind, such as this pandemic that has swept this country, and other things that affect people all over the world, instead of really being bogged down into a central problem relative to race and color and things that really make us less than true Americans.
Under the 14th amendment, the Second Amendment, the United States Constitution, laws govern the state, these matters should have been well established, and lived out and under the constitution that all people will be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of their color. But unfortunately, it has not occurred. And we have yet a way to go before we achieve maybe the realization that that can't happen in this country.
This is a difficult time, we are now coming back from the pandemic. And I fear that many more incidents of brutality and law enforcement abuse is going to go on. And then now to see our state really pass laws to allow people to tote weapons, we're just going in the wrong direction. It is mean-spirited, and again, anti-human. Are they going to ever wake up? These things against people, to separate people, cannot coexist in a democracy. And the people really advocating towards things that divide us, I believe that in some ways God would have to deal with them. Because apparently, when we make it so apparent, and expose them, and they still yet go down that direction towards defending, again, things against other human beings, they don't realize, again, seemingly don’t realize what they're doing. So what is it going to take? I don't know other than again, God may be coming into their lives.
Andy: Those are powerful words. Another passage that struck me in your book, was your belief that the struggle wasn’t so much one of black versus white, but a “conflict between justice and injustice.” Do you still feel that’s the case?
Cecil: Yes, because actually, you have. You could see the evidence of this, in fact, in the unrest going throughout the country and the marches and demonstrations after the death of Floyd and others where it used to be back during the Civil Rights Movement era that you had around 20% of white persons who were marching in the demonstrations of the early 1950s and 60s; today you have about 60%. So that itself is an improvement where people, all colors are joining together against, again, the evils of racism and discrimination.
Again, you have good white people, and you have good black people, but you also have bad white people and bad black people. And there's not going to be anything you can do about that. It's just something that's been around for a long time. And so justice against injustice is something that really, that it can't always really be determined by the courts and our judicial system. Sometimes we're going to have to wait ‘til it matures, in the actual people who are practicing, and who are the people who are leaders. I see that as a problem in America as one of the reasons we have not made very much more progress.
I see a decline in the leadership of this country. It doesn't seem to be the kind of leadership that we can look up to really changing directions. It’s only represented with the Democrats maybe who are in the Biden administration. But will they have the capacity to really bring about the changes we need? Hope so. But again, with so much strong opposition from others, it's gonna be a long, hard, uphill battle.
Andy: As we’re here doing this interview, we’re here in your new museum, surrounded by art and your photography -- I know education is very important to you -- undoubtedly, this museum will be a step in the right direction towards healing, in some way. Cecil: After publishing four full books about civil rights and experiences I've heard in covering this as a journalist, and from the standpoint of really being on a first-hand experience. I tried for many years after publishing these books to really get the state of South Carolina, the county, the city, to establish a Civil Rights Museum in Orangeburg, again, it very played a very important role in the civil rights movement and the origin of the civil rights movement. And seemingly, I could not get any help from any of them. So finally, about two years ago, I decided to take a building that I had, that my wife and I formerly lived in a 3,500 square foot structure. And I had the artifacts and the photographs and the documents, to do a museum. So I thought it would not be too much of a problem. And I thought it might be that I would be able to afford to finance to create a civil rights museum. And I did.
I put about $161,000 into really making, equipping the museum to make it a place where we would be able to, to visit and see the individuals who made such great sacrifices, and whose shoulders we stand on today. Reading about it in books is one thing. But when you can see the actual faces of the people in our photographs, or see their written correspondence, or see great artifacts, like maybe the Briggs family Bible, which was the inspiration behind that family in Clarendon County, and that in the support and inspiration and belief, from their religious standpoint, to withstand the terrorism that they face after they signed that petition. When you house that all in a museum, and people can come out and visit, I think it will make an important contribution to people's understanding what this is all about.
I have really not yet had a grand opening day because again, museums cost millions of dollars, and I certainly did not have that. But with the resources that I did have, within the 3,500 square foot building, I did have, I think I have a good start of a South Carolina history museum here for people to look at.
And four months into the making the museum. Again, I had to, again, close back down again because the COVID pandemic started, and it was the safe thing to do to close it up. But in the four to six months, I think that I started a museum, I had 9,000 visitors and I would have to say about 25% of them were white. So I believe that this museum can serve a good function in the community and hopefully the people of South Carolina will visit the museum now that we're coming off COVID, and welcome them, invite the public, to make an appointment and come see the museum and see this history, and really celebrate the people and give thanks to the people whose shoulders we stand on today.
Andy: I’d like to close by having you tell us about your favorite image. I believe it’s the one that graces the cover of Freedom and Justice?
Wondering, Wanting, Waiting (1963)
Cecil: One of my favorite and most requested images is of a little boy holding his mother's hand. I took that picture during a 1960, maybe ’61 or ’62 event in Columbia, where you had protesters and marches around the state capitol, asking that the Confederate flag be removed.
And the right after the march and the demonstration they were singing, I believe “We Shall Overcome.” And I happened to look to my left, and I saw a little boy who was really shadowed by all the adults around him. And he was holding his mother's hand. But the lighting was not very good. As I turned my camera around, I noticed that almost if it was a divine moment, the clouds kind of open up, a little ray of light came down on this little boy's face. And that has become one of my favorite pictures.
I've used it on the cover of two of my books. It also has appeared in many history books. And it's become a favorite of mine, because in a way, it is kind of iconic of what the civil rights movement is all about. The name of the picture is “Wandering, Waiting and Wanting.” And I believe that is so reflective of the total African American struggle. Coming to America as slaves and having to lift themselves out of these kind of circumstances in order to become productive citizens. But citizens who also want the freedom, the justice and equality as all other people want. That's a very simple thing for them to ask, but they so much deserve that. Still, people deserve that.
Andy: Wonderful image. Cecil thanks for taking the time to talk with me today, it’s always a pleasure catching up with you. You're always doing so many interesting things, and I just can’t thank you enough.
Cecil: Well Andrew, I also like to thank you, thank you very much for this opportunity to speak with you. And I'm hoping that the listeners again will again support you and our best of luck to you and your family.
Andy: Thanks so much
To learn more about the Cecil Williams South Carolina Civil Rights Museum, you can visit cecilwilliams.com. I’ll include a link in the show notes.