The power of photography and how Cecil Williams captures America’s history with civil rights

One man’s cherished memories are fueling flashbacks of America’s unsettled past.
Cecil Williams is a respected journalist, author, and photographer. He has turned his photography studio into a place of learning.
Published: Feb. 3, 2022 at 10:48 PM EST
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ORANGEBURG, S.C. (WBTV) - Behind the doors of 1865 Lake Drive in Orangeburg, South Carolina , one man’s cherished memories are fueling flashbacks of America’s unsettled past.

Demonstrating the urgent need for better schools connected to the Briggs vs. Elliot case which involved the legendary Thurgood Marshall along with documenting John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign - Cecil Williams isn’t shy in sharing his photographic journey.

“I had learned to be really somewhat of an inquisitive journalist, a photojournalist at that,’’ he said.

Admirable talents took root as a teenager in the 1950′s, and Williams’s drive remains strong well into his 80′s.

Related: The power of photography and how Cecil Williams captures America’s history

Preserving first-hand experiences linked to civil rights and African American history is an obsession during life’s sunset years.

“I started covering the Harvey Gantt story long before the national press started covering Harvey Gantt,” he recalls.

On a frigid February day in 1963, Williams scored a prized moment.

“I got up on the steps of Tillman Hall and photographed Harvey Gantt, but also surrounded by 150 journalists who would come from around the world to cover the story,” he said.

20 years later, Gantt was elected as Charlotte’s first African American mayor, and the public battle to integrate Clemson University commands significant wall space in the Cecil Williams South Carolina Civil Rights Museum.

Among his gripping artifacts and pictures are spent shell casings he found scattered on the ground from weapons fired by members of the state’s highway patrol at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg.

That’s where student demonstrators in 1968 intended to end segregation at the town’s all-white bowling alley before things turned deadly.

“We had extreme overt racism,” Williams told WBTV.

Rebelling against what he calls a racist symbol, Williams also showcased the confederate battle flag flying over the statehouse dome during the 1960′s. Back in 2000, his work brought attention to activists fighting to bring down the symbol of dixie some 15 years before it was officially removed.

Photographing Coretta Scott King’s public appearance during the 1969 Charleston Hospital workers strike surfaced as the cover story for Jet Magazine.

13 months earlier in April 1968, violence claimed the life of her husband Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In describing the moment William said, “This is the first time since the death of her husband Martin Luther King, which signaled the fact that she would be following in his footsteps.

Timeless and moving perspectives all connected to a museum that survives as a one-man operation.

“It’s the story of the South Carolina civil rights movement,” Williams said.

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