Cecil Williams Photojournalist - Trying to reclaim history
Written by Jerry E. Halmon   

“South Carolina History has been hijacked,” noted Orangeburg, South Carolina modern Civil Rights-era photojournalist Cecil Williams told a large group of people, who came out Monday evening to an exhibition of his work presented by the Arts Council of Bamberg County at the Wright-Potts Library on the campus of Voorhees College. Williams, a native of Orangeburg and the author of three books on the modern Civil Rights Era, noted that he was “trying to reclaim” the history and origin of the civil rights movement.

Williams stated that while he wasn’t trying to take anything away from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks, but Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t start the civil rights movement. Williams outlined five reasons the modern civil rights era got started that included, in 1949 Rev. J. A. Delaine of Clarendon County, filing a case (Briggs vs. Clarendon County Board of Education) on behalf of his son Harry Briggs Jr. to ride a school bus to school. Williams noted this was the first case to challenge segregation and served as the template for other cases to follow, but does not get the credit it deserves in history.

The second event that led to the civil rights movement he stated was a law suit brought on by citizens of Orangeburg, South Carolina against the Orangeburg Public School System and a boycott of Orangeburg businesses. Prominent national civil rights officials like Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Ralph David Albernathy sought information from South Carolina as to how these events were carried out successfully.

Another event that played a key part in the civil rights movement was “the brutal image” of Emitt Till a young man from Chicago that was beaten beyond recognition for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. The fourth reason Williams stated for the movement was Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks’ reaction to the Brown case. And finally the national attention brought on by the Montgomery Alabama bus boycotts.

“The case that got the national attention was Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, but it should’ve been named Briggs,” Williams said, adding, “this is our history, Black and White and we should be proud of it.” Williams noted that in 2013, the state of South Carolina still had not been given credit for its place in history but things are changing.

He stated that two University of South Carolina books have changed their history of the civil rights movement and about nine other books are now going back and rewriting their history. “They risked their lives and livelihoods,” Williams said of those early pioneers of the modern civil rights movement.

When asked if he feared for his life when photographing the volatile events of the 60s and where he was the night of the event at then South Carolina State College, that came to be known as the Orangeburg Massacre, Williams noted “yes there was fear in my heart,” but he said that people warned him to be careful and he had the full support of his mother and father, who told him he was doing the right thing. Williams noted that as if by fate, he was unable to get on the South Carolina State College campus that fateful night in February of 1968 because all the highways were blocked, “I would probably have been shot,” Williams said.

Williams noted that he was arrested twice and locked up in the Orangeburg City jail ( not the legendary Pink Palace) as so many others where). “ I was an insider to history. It was my fate to be there to capture history,” Williams who started his career as a stringer for Jet Magazine said.