Photographer tells story of struggle for equality in SC
Orangeburg photographer Cecil Williams has captured thousands of images of African Americans' fight for equal rights over decades and is now set to unveil a wall art series that depicts their history in the state. It is a story which he hopes will reach middle and high schools.
Williams, whose photographs have helped to preserve the African-American experience of the second half of the 20th century, is giving the community another glimpse into his treasure trove of images with "Moments of Grace – The South Carolina History That Changed America" wall art series.
"I believe we need something like this because often South Carolina's history and the things that we did have been lost in history. We stand on the shoulders of many great people, but our history is not known," Williams said.
Using his skills in photography, art, and computer graphics, the 84-year-old started the series in 1999. He has just completed 60 of what will be a series of 100 images that depict the state's history, culture and heritage and how it all intertwines with African Americans' fight for justice and equality.
He hopes to have his series of 11X17-inch images distributed among the state's middle and high schools.
"The goal is to get this in all of the middle and high schools in the state of South Carolina. I have an upcoming meeting with state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman. From a person who brokered the meeting with her, they said she was very excited to see it. She indicated she wanted to see me and would be meeting with me after Christmas. So that may happen any day that I have a meeting with her," Williams said.
He continued, "My book 'Out of the Box in Dixie' in 2006 also was distributed by Inez Tenenbaum, who at that time was the state superintendent of education, to the 88 school districts of the state of South Carolina. They bought 2,000 of my books and distributed them to the 88 school districts. Now I believe it's about 83 school districts."
Williams felt his work was not done.
"I felt that this was another moment that I might have something to offer to the educational system in our state. Our youth today don't know our history, and I think history gives us a bearing from which to base all of the things we do presently and in the future," he said.
Each one of the project's contributing sponsors will receive a framed, poster-size image from the series, which includes images illustrating the experiences of those involved in the Briggs vs. Elliott case, which would eventually lead to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that forced the desegregation of public schools.
Williams described how his project to create images from the state's African American history into a wall art series was birthed.
"During the NAACP's Freedom Fund banquet each year, Nelson Rivers, who was the executive director for a number of years, would ask me to create from my images a special picture to give to the corporate sponsors. That was from I think about 1999 or so.
"For many years through his leadership, and also during the leadership of Dwight James, who was the NAACP's executive director up until recently, I created a series of images, and they would be based on my photographs, or my paintings, with a framed copy to be given to the corporate sponsors. So that was the birth of the idea," he said.
He continued, "For two decades I did this. So during COVID, I had more time on my hands. So I created this series."
His images are available in both 11X7-inch and 22X34-inch sizes.
Williams said he anticipates having his wall art series presented in the libraries of schools.
"Normally, posters and, you might say, African-American history, or afro-centric history, comes out and is much more discussed during Black History Month. Here is a history that could actually be available at all times because we are so far behind in educating our youth about history. Again, my concentration is on South Carolina African American history. Seemingly, the African American history so far in South Carolina has been left out of the history books, but actually my museum emphasizes really that we are at the very beginning," he said.
The Cecil Williams South Carolina Civil Rights Museum is a nonprofit entity that Williams operates in Orangeburg.
"I've never even had an open house because I never felt I had finished the museum yet. I'm still working on it. I originally financed it myself getting it off the ground. … Then I got some small contributions, and we're still waiting, trying to get major contributions and donors so we can really launch it," he said.
"But now seemingly the City of Orangeburg and perhaps Claflin University are opening the door of opportunity for me at the Railroad Corner as being the museum entity that might locate in the State Theater. They're saying that this might be the excellent mix there, to put a place that is of culture, heritage and history and so forth," Williams said.
In the meantime, he thinks his wall art series is an opportunity to tout the importance of the visual arts in education, particularly of those who made a difference in African American's struggle for freedom and justice.
He referenced the series' images of Judge Julius Waties Waring, a U.S. District Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of South Carolina. Waring played an important role in the early legal battles of the American Civil Rights Movement, with his dissent in Briggs v. Elliott proving foundational to the Brown v. Board of Education case.
"This image I created of Strom Thurmond – even though Strom Thurmond was known to be a very vocal, rigid segregationist, nevertheless the other side of it was that he was the first to hire a Black aide on Capitol Hill and also brought millions of dollars to Black colleges and HBCUs and Black businesses," Williams said.
He said his series includes powerful images with small captions of their significance in history, including his picture of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall at Claflin University in November 1955 shortly after the Brown vs. Board of Education case was decided.
It also includes images of the leaders of the Friendship Nine civil rights student movement; Harvey Gantt, the first African-American to integrate Clemson University and, of course, images from the Orangeburg Massacre, referring to the event in 1968 that saw three students killed and 28 others injured when South Carolina Highway Patrol troopers opened fire on a crowd of protesters following three nights of escalating racial tension over efforts to desegregate All-Star Triangle Bowl.
"All of them carry this theme: the South Carolina history that shaped America. That's the name of the series. I use my historical photography. My degree is from Claflin University in art. I studied under Arthur Rose, but my profession all of my life has been in photography since 9 years old," Williams said.
"My hero in art is the great Norman Rockwell, who was an illustrator. So I think of myself as an illustrator because I create mixed media art that derives from my paintings, my photography and my computer graphic skills," he said, noting that the series also includes an image of Lenny Springs, a member of the state NAACP's board of directors, marching in Freedom March in Columbia.
"I produced the image with a painterly effect. It goes beyond photography. This is how I use both photography and art. Think about the great image of the American Marines at Iwo Jima putting the flag up. Think about the lone citizen throwing a rock against a tank in Tiananmen Square," Williams said.
"Powerful images teach so much and are memorable. So in today's world of social media, what could be more effective than a series of images that depict our history, our heritage and our culture? This is what I'm trying to do," he said.