Civil rights elder preserves S.C. history

In elementary school, Cecil Williams photographed lawyer Thurgood Marshall’s early efforts to desegregate public schools. In high school, he documented the ‘60s civil rights sit-ins. As a young adult, he covered Harvey Gantt’s 1964 desegregation of Clemson University, the aftermath of the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre and the 1969 strike by Charleston hospital workers.

“The saying goes: A picture is worth a thousand words. But no. I say a good picture, a storytelling picture is worth a thousand words,” said Cecil Williams, a 78-year-old civil rights photographer.

Williams’s body of work, spanning the last six decades, defines good documentary photography in South Carolina. Starting as a child in the ‘50s, the Orangeburg native covered most major civil rights events in the Palmetto State, from the 1954 Brigg v. Elliott case, which he claims started the national civil rights movement, to the removal of the Confederate battle flag from atop the South Carolina Statehouse in 2000.

He began photographing at age 9 in segregated Orangeburg, South Carolina. Williams’s parents gave him the camera his older brother had abandoned after finding a love for playing music. The Kodak Baby Brownie camera resides in Williams’s studio, which is next door to his home in an Orangeburg suburb.

In the ‘40s, few African Americans in the South owned cameras. But Williams’s parents supported his hobby. “I owe my family everything,” Williams said. Walking around his tidy but packed studio office, he paused and looked down. His light brown eyes softened as he recalled memories about his parents. They allowed him to develop his pictures in the bathtub and kitchen sink, eventually letting him turn a bedroom into a darkroom.

“I don’t remember, but I’m sure the chemicals made the whole house stink,” Williams said with a chuckle.

He pointed to a large print hanging on the wall. It showed a group of young children, including Williams. Some of the neighborhood children appeared white but were labeled black. “I think of my childhood as perfect, in spite of my segregated upbringing. Looking back, I’d prefer it no other way.” He told stories of him and his friends as children. They sometimes pranked segregated businesses by passing as white and Hispanic to access services. Prohibited from the white-only drive-in movie theater, he and his friends snuck in and watched from the safety of a ditch.

He also delivered newspapers, earning his own money. For a while, and unbeknownst to his parents, he bought and ate a Snickers chocolate bar after breakfast, lunch, dinner and at night. “Even today, I can’t look at a Snickers without feeling sick,” Williams said. He laughs easily; it’s genuine and contagious.

Williams believes that growing up as a black person in the segregated Deep South gave him deep compassion and wisdom, along with a unique perspective of God and humanity. All these components seem to contribute to his professional and personal success in a Jim Crow society that deemed him lesser.

Williams is dapper but modest in his dress. On a Sunday afternoon in October, he wore a crisp short-sleeve shirt, light blue and button-down; charcoal suit pants and black oxford shoes. This was his casual outfit. Of average build, he carries himself with a natural grace, perhaps partially gained from playing tennis from an early age.

At 14, Williams played Arthur Ashe but lost 3-6. The American Tennis Association, the oldest African-American athletic organization in the United States, hosted the match in Daytona, Florida. Ashe became the first black No. 1 professional tennis player in 1975, desegregating tennis elite. He remains the only black man to have ever won three Grand Slam titles.

Even today, Williams has more energy than most people a quarter of his age. He embodies the elegance of a ‘50s movie star, though his café au lait complexion would have prohibited access to Hollywood stardom.

Williams’s father, a black man, ran a tailoring business in downtown Orangeburg. His mother worked as a school teacher. She was a person of mixed race and had very light skin. She chose not to pass as white because of her black children. “Look here at something I found,” Williams said, motioning me to follow him out of his studio room to the foyer. A three-ring binder sat open on a table. “My great grandfather was a Confederate soldier,” he said and pointed to a white man posing holding a gun. “That’s my mother’s grandfather,” he said as if still processing the fact.

He only recently discovered this part of his family history.

His mother worked with the Rev. Joseph A. DeLaine, whom Williams believes is as important as civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks. DeLaine helped organize people to sign petitions in Clarendon County, South Carolina. Those petitions eventually led to Briggs v. Elliott, the first lawsuit to challenge segregation in public schools. Briggs was combined with four other lawsuits in Brown v. Board of Education. And in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

Williams photographed the South Carolina meetings and appeals court trial of Briggs v. Elliott, along with the people involved. One of his most famous pictures, taken when he was 11 years old, is of Thurgood Marshall stepping off a train in Charleston, where he argued Briggs v. Elliott. In 1940, Marshall had started and served as executive director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Marshall became the first African-American chief justice of the United States In 1967.

“My young mind didn’t comprehend all of why I was there, but I knew it was important. And it was exciting,” Williams said.

At 14, Williams began working with Jet magazine. He also contributed to the Associated Press, as well as other black publications, such as the Baltimore Afro-American and the Pittsburgh Courier. “I was really sort of rare. Being a black person, publications came to me,” Williams said.

Few national news outlets covered early occurrences of race-related issues in the South. Instead of hiring black staff photographers, news outlets would usually have contacts in different places to use when needed.

Williams also photographed the 1955 Orangeburg Freedom Boycott. “This is before King and Parks. Chronologically speaking, this came first. The Montgomery Bus Boycott came five months later,” Williams said. Black citizens of Orangeburg, led by the Orangeburg NAACP chapter, refused to buy products from certain companies that opposed the efforts to desegregate South Carolina public schools.

To an extent, the boycott inconvenienced black participants. Many of those companies offered necessities, such as gas, dairy products, television, hardware supplies and medicine that boycotters had to then find elsewhere.

Despite the boycott’s success, many historians consider the Montgomery Bus Boycott the beginning of the national civil rights movement. “The Montgomery boycott was directly modeled after the one in Orangeburg. They just got more press,” Williams said.

Side note: The Montgomery Bus Boycott will serve as a template for a national economic boycott against racial violence and police brutality in recent years. The Injustice Boycott, lead by New York Daily Senior Justice Writer Shaun King, is set to launch online on Dec. 5, 2016, the anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The list of companies won’t be released until Dec. 5, but the boycott will target companies, corporations and state governments that have either profited from or done little to end systemic racism.

At this point, we had been talking about civil rights in South Carolina for four hours, but Williams still spoke with bold passion. He sat cross-legged in a computer chair between two desks, large monitors sitting on each. The only time he broke eye contact was to how my pictures and film negatives.

He designed his studio building, which sits a couple hundred feet from his house. An unusual round couch takes up much of the foyer, which is painted bright white. Two industrial size doors open up to a short driveway. An easel in a corner of the room displays a black and white picture of Williams’s childhood friend, Bud, playing a saxophone. An exercise bike rests in another corner.

Two or three rooms branch off the foyer; photography equipment, painting supplies and prints fill a few of the rooms, while stacks of miscellaneous materials lie against the walls between rooms. Several boxes of model cars rest on top of one another amidst the storage. As a boy, Williams dreamed of designing cars. He couldn’t afford to go to college to study auto engineering, though.

He instead studied art at Claflin University on a full-ride photography scholarship in Orangeburg from 1956 to 1960. He served as the photo editor of the student newspaper and yearbook for nearly all four years. “I always had my camera. I didn’t go anywhere without it,” Williams said.

While an undergraduate student, he participated in and documented the increase of student activism in Orangeburg, which preceded the well-known Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins.

Other civil rights events that Williams documented include Harvey Gantt’s integration of Clemson University in 1963. At this time, few colleges and universities desegregated without backlash, including violence, from white people and officials.

Williams had applied to Clemson, the well-known school for architecture, eight years before Gantt. The institution rejected him. “I’ve always been interested in what can be achieve when you are denied something,” Williams said. Since the 1960s, he has designed five residences, including his own. Ebony magazine featured his “Space Age Home” in its June 1977 issue.

One of Williams’s most famous photos, shot in the mid-‘60s is of a white man turning away two black students who wanted to worship at a white church. Jim Crow laws mandated public spaces, such as parks, municipal golf courses, state beaches, be segregated. Churches followed this practice.

“I got a tip that two Claflin students were going to do it, and I headed down town. I found them standing outside the church door. The mayor of Orangeburg, Clyde Fair, opens the door and he says, ‘No, you can’t come in. This is a segregated church. Go worship with your own people.”

Williams described the situation in a matter-of-fact tone, but five decades later a hint of pain still remained in his voice.

Williams worked as a stringer photographer for the AP, so he went home to develop the picture and then quickly drove to Columbia. “I was prohibited from going through The State newsroom, so instead I took the elevator to the AP office on the top floor. Soon after, they printed my picture in newspapers all around the world.”

He chuckled at the implication that his state’s largest newspaper denied him access while an international news outlet got his work published worldwide.

About a month later, an all-white draft board told him he had 30 days to make arrangement to leave his life in Orangeburg. “It was their way of punishing you if you didn’t comply to their lifestyle,” Williams said. He was forced to leave his photography business, but joined the Air Force, instead of being drafted.

A few years later, he returned to Orangeburg after being released from service due to injuries received during training. “I came back because Orangeburg is where the untold story was,” he said.

He reopened his studio and continued documenting civil rights events, including the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre.

South Carolina Highway Patrol officers shot and killed three unarmed African-American males and injured 27 other students from South Carolina State University and Claflin University. The shooting happened at South Carolina State University after approximately 200 students protested at a segregated Orangeburg bowling ally.

He also photographed the 1969 Charleston hospital workers’ strike. The 113-daylong effort, involving over 500 Charleston hospital workers, as well as Septima Poinsette Clark and Coretta Scott King, was one of the most important civil rights events pushing for economic justice. Williams’s only cover for Jet was of Coretta Scott King during the strike.

The last public race-related event Williams photographed was the July 1, 2000 removal of the Confederate battle flag that flew with the state and national flags on top of the South Carolina Statehouse. In 1962, South Carolina raised the flag on the Statehouse dome in celebration of the Civil War centennial. It was also an obvious opposition to the civil rights movement in South Carolina.

He doesn’t document civil rights protests or events now, despite the frequency of events over the last decade.

The 2015 Charleston Massacre occurred only 75 miles from his home in Orangeburg. The massacre involved the deaths of nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church during a Wednesday night Bible study. Self-proclaimed white supremacist Dylann Roof, 22, participated in Bible study for nearly an hour before he allegedly opened fire with the hopes of starting a race war. Roof’s competency hearing is scheduled for Nov. 16, 2016.

The tragedy evoked a national conversation about racism in South Carolina. But Williams didn’t photograph the funerals, vigils or public acts of solidarity, following the shooting.

“I wouldn’t have had access to create historically interesting pictures. I’d just have been taking the same pictures as everyone else with their smart phones,” he explained.

Williams doesn’t participate in today’s movement for black lives. He feels somewhat critical of aspects of the Black Lives Matter Movement, including the movement’s decentralized leadership. “But I do think the work is necessary. As a journalist, I appreciate the video footage. The truth always comes to light.”

Since 1995, he’s written eight books, seven of which he’s published himself.

Most of the books include his photographs and detail his experiences covering civil rights in South Carolina. He’s spent the past several years traveling the Southeast, speaking about his photography and the civil rights movement in South Carolina.

His most recent endeavor is called the FilmToaster. “Check this out,” he said excitedly as if he were revealing the invention for the first time. He rolled across his office in his computer chair to a station. On it sat a small digital camera attached to a contraption that resembled a mailbox. “It’s how I’m saving the almost million pictures [of mine].”

He invented the film scanning system, which digitizes film negatives faster than other popular methods. Released in 2015, the system involves a digital camera taking a picture of a negative through the box he designed and producing a digital format copy.

Williams has also published several books for other people. He owns a photography business, Cecil Williams Photography LLC. He shoots weddings, portraits and community events, which can sometimes get “boring, but they pay the bills.”

Williams’s mission is simple: He wants to bring awareness to South Carolina’s role as the origin of the civil rights movement.

“If we don’t know our history, we’re destined to repeat it. And the past is not a place we want to be.”







‘Get Up Offa That Thing’: How music woke me up

For me, waking up to racial injustice began with music.

I grew up in East Tennesse; my family of seven listened to different kinds of music, but mostly music composed and performed by white people. Even so, it was the work of those white artists that introduced me to my favorite music: Soul, rhythm and blues and Motown.

Drums were the only instrument missing in my family of guitarists, pianists, violinists and flutists. But I also loved rhythm, and I didn’t want to learn to read music, so my parents gave me a drum kit for my tenth birthday.

I discovered and soon idolized Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, whose power, speed and technique revolutionized rock drumming. Some of his greatest influences are swing, funk, samba, jazz, and doo-wop, all of which come from artists of African descent. Bonham combined those styles of percussion to create his own groove full of feeling, which is why I loved him.

A deeper look into who influenced the Beatles and Stray Cats, my family’s favorites, led me to the black artists of early rock ‘n’ roll, such as Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and my favorite, Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

In middle school, I got an iPod, and my dad stocked it with eight gigabytes of music. I skateboarded around my family’s unfinished garage repeatedly listening and singing to the Marvelettes’ “Please, Mr. Postman” and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Jimmy Mack,” both Motown classics. I clutched my 3rd generation Nano, having never before heard such fun, catchy music. I asked my dad to add more music like that, and my obsession with Motown began.

Music has also carried me through difficult times and has served as an unique way to learn about different experiences.

My parents divorced while I was in high school. I sang to cope with my feelings of sadness and isolation. Sam Cooke’s legendary 1964 single, “A Change is Gonna Come,” gave me hope. I often hummed the famous lyrics, “It’s been a long, long time coming, but I know a change gon’ come” to comfort myself.

I had no idea that Cooke wrote the song after being arrested and jailed for refusing to leave a Louisiana hotel canceled his reservation based on his race. I didn’t realize the song served as an anthem for the civil rights movement until I, as a senior in high school, chose to write an essay on the song. My love for the song led me to take a extensive look at the civil rights movement for the first time.

During my first year in college, I had a hard time adjusting to life as a student athlete. My rigorous class and volleyball schedule left me mentally and physically exhausted. I’d often retreat to my car and belt Etta James’s 1964 hit, “All I Could Do Was Cry,” about a woman who watches her lover marry another woman. I’d never experienced that situation, but I connected to the loneliness and betrayal the song expresses.

Depression dominated my third year as an undergraduate student. Through my studies and experiences, I acknowledged many of the world’s injustices in great depth. And I didn’t know how to manage as a deeply empathetic person. Stevie Wonder’s 1976 album, “Songs in the Key of Life,” largely helped me regain hope and emotional stability. His music, promoting reconciliation, harmony and love, was my religion.

My family had few friends of color when I was a kid. Bristol, my hometown, is known for two things: NASCAR and country music. The fact my family and friends never talked about race negatively affected how I viewed people of color in subtle ways that I’ve since been working to unlearn. But my love for different types of music by black artists positively shaped my perspective of the black community. And it motivated me to learn more about racial inequality in America.

I didn’t always understand the cause of the emotion in much of the music I listened to, I but I felt the pain of the blues, the joyfulness of doo-wop, the lightheartedness of ‘60s girl groups, the optimism of Motown and the freedom of funk.

Now, the lyrics, “It’s been a long, long time coming, but I know a change gon’ come,” not only serve as a source of hope but also as motivation to work toward a more just society.

Columbia College students react to racist social media post

Photo courtesy of Columbia College

On Sept. 27, a picture circulated on social media: Three white students posed with charcoal facial masks smeared across their faces.

The picture, originally posted to Snapchat, is captioned, “drink the mf koolaid.”

The students, three first-years from Columbia College, a private liberal arts women’s college in Columbia, South Carolina, have been removed from campus while Columbia College investigates.

The college’s Office of Multicultural Affairs hosted two afternoon forums on Sept. 28. Day and evening students and others from the college community voiced their opinions. Breed Leadership Center’s meeting room was filled, with more than 150 people in attendance at each session.

Female students made up the majority of those who spoke; two parents and a white male coach from the school also participated. Many students cried as they shared their opinions from behind a podium. The audience cheered and clapped for speakers at both forums.

Some students who spoke addressed certain groups, including black students, college administration, the students who posed the picture and white people. No speaker or audience member grew hostile or belligerent, and those in line to speak waited calmly for their turn.

From left to right, Cory Johnson, Sabrina Stevens, and Demery Trantham speak during the afternoon forum on Sept. 28. Photos by Claudia Smith Brinson.

“When we were in the cafeteria today, a student said to one of my friends that there are more important things going on than Black Lives Matter. That is ugly, to say there are more important things than another human being’s life,” said Peighton Davis, a black student.

“I’m so sorry, my black queens, that our skin is a trend in 2016. And that our lips are a trend, and that we’re still taken as a joke, regardless of the countless contributions that we make to this country,” said Simone Tolson, a black student.

“It’s hitting close to home. People are tired and angry and mad. And people can only take so much. I just precaution you, white people in this room, that before you make an action, that you really think about what you’re doing and who you are affecting,” said Harley Carrigan, a white student.

“The No. 1 style offense in America is being black. The No. 2 offense is being a black female. You don’t know what it’s like to wake up and work twice as hard for half of what y’all have. We have to prove ourselves every single day: For me to walk into a job and them tell me my natural hair is unprofessional… So you know what I did today? I woke up and grabbed my pick, and I made it as big as I possibly could,” said Cory Johnson, a black student.

“Speaking to the students: I want you to know none of us here are alone,” said Deborah Jackson, a black student.

“I wasn’t mad because they said what they said. I was mad because they were wearing Columbia College everything,” said Tamara Belton, a black student.

“I won’t be filled with hate,” said Alexandria Smith, a black student.

“I’m very conflicted, and I’m going to tell you why. One of my best friends is in that picture. I don’t think she realized what was captioned in that picture, but I know she’s willing to face what’s coming to her,” said Demery Trantham, a white student.

“I’m hurt and surprised, and I want you to know I’m here for you,” said Sabrina Stevens, a white student.

“One of the things that really bothered me about this is that, apparently to a lot of people, our feelings aren’t valid,” said Morgan Summers, a black student.

More than 150 Columbia College students, faculty and staff attended the afternoon forum on Sept. 28. Photos by Claudia Smith Brinson.

The Office of Multicultural Affairs hosted morning and afternoon sessions on Sept. 29 to listen to students. A special chapel service was also held. Along with weekly meetings to discuss campus and global events, the office will host additional meetings and “brave spaces” for students to process, heal and discuss ways to prevent instances of bias in the future.

The college’s National Advancement of Colored People chapter bussed several students to the South Carolina Statehouse on Oct. 1 for a peaceful protest and vigil for people of color killed by police this year.