What can one man and a camera do? In the case of South Carolina photographer Cecil Williams, the answer is “quite a lot.” Over a 50-year period, Williams has chronicled some of the key moments in the continuing struggle for racial equality in our state and nation. Forty significant images from his long career are currently on view at the Aiken County Historical Museum; the exhibition moves to USC Aiken’s Etherredge Center from Oct. 8 to Nov. 18.
As a nine-year-old growing up in Orangeburg, Williams became the proud recipient of a Kodak Baby Brownie, handed down from an older brother. From that day forward, his life’s mission was laid out for him: He would record the people around him and the principal events in their lives. At the age of 11, Williams photographed his first wedding; but it was the burgeoning civil rights movement in the 1950s that shaped his reportorial style.
As a freelance contributor to Jet magazine, Williams produced eyewitness documentation of pivotal figures and key moments in the march toward social progress. In the early 1950s, for example, he captured images of Harry and Eliza Briggs and the Rev. Joseph DeLaine, who laid the foundation for one of the five cases that led to the momentous 1954 Supreme Court decision known as Brown v. Board of Education. Members of the African American community of Summerton were initially asking for only one bus to transport their children to school. White students in Clarendon County at that time had 33 buses, but the black children had to walk to school, some up to 16 miles one way. When the county school superintendent denied their request, the case was eventually expanded to encompass not only the topic of school transportation but the basic injustice of segregated education as a whole.
Williams, a 2018 recipient of the Governor’s Award in the Humanities, also photographed some of the protests that led to the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, the shooting death of two South Carolina State undergraduates and one high school student at the hands of South Carolina state police. What began as a request to integrate a local bowling alley led ultimately to a violent suppression of public dissent. The current exhibition contains several photographs of student demonstrations in Orangeburg in the early 1960s.
Williams was also on-hand during the 1969 strike of Charleston hospital workers; black employees of two city hospitals were demanding more respect from their white counterparts in addition to wages at least at the federally mandated minimum. The traveling exhibition administered by the South Carolina State Library contains four images from that struggle, including three featuring prominent civil rights leaders like Coretta Scott King and Andrew Young.
One of the most striking photographs in Mr. Williams’s personal canon is, in my estimation, a 1960 photo of the lunch counter in the Kress 5 and 10 in Orangeburg. The viewer’s eye is drawn into the image along two converging lines: on the right, a row of padded seats removed from their pedestals; and on the left along the counter itself, a row of naked posts. Both lines converge in the rear of the photograph on a cluster of white customers, clutching their purses and shopping bags and glaring at the camera. The piece documents a particularly desperate “defense” against the desegregation of whites-only eating establishments: the removal of seating.
A highlight of the fall meeting of the Aiken County Historical Society, under the impressive leadership of Allen Riddick, will be a 3 p.m. talk by Cecil Williams at the AECOM Center for the Performing Arts. Williams has prepared PowerPoint slides to enhance his Sept. 22 presentation, which is free and open to the public. His talk will be followed by a signing of his latest book titled “Unforgettable: Celebrating a Time of Life, Hope, Bravery.”