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Photographer Cecil Williams Remembers the Orangeburg Massacre & Documenting Civil Rights Era

Web ExclusiveNovember 09, 2019
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Civil rights photographer Cecil Williams recalls photographing the aftermath of the 1968 Orangeburg massacre when three unarmed black students were shot dead at South Carolina State University. The nine officers who opened fire that day were all acquitted.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we bring you Part 2 of our conversation with Cecil J. Williams. He’s a photographer and author, best known for his photography documenting the civil rights movement in South Carolina beginning in the 1950s, founder of the Cecil Williams Civil Rights Museum right here in Orangeburg.

In Part 1 of our discussion, we talked about the Orangeburg massacre, February 8th, 1968. It was the year of the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. It was before the killings at Kent State and Jackson State. This was the first massacre on a American university campus, three students dead, 28 wounded, here in Orangeburg, when students were simply protesting a segregated bowling alley, the All-Star bowling alley, just down the road from South Carolina State. South Carolina troopers moved in and opened fire on the crowd of students, killing three of them — two 19-year-old college students and a 17-year-old high school student. Cecil Williams has this all documented in the museum, that opened just a few months ago in Orangeburg.

It’s great to have you with us and for us to continue this conversation. Why was the Orangeburg massacre so overlooked and yet so seminal in the civil rights movement?

CECIL WILLIAMS: That’s always puzzled me, as well, because here was an American tragedy. Here was something that happened at a time when we had so many other things that were reported. But perhaps, maybe with the war being in the background at the time and other things happening nationally, maybe it did not get the attention that it deserved. But it was an American tragedy, but — one that should not have occurred. It should not have occurred. And our state, federal, local people, they should have prevented this. They should have not even assembled the force they had to really try and stop the students from the demonstrations.

AMY GOODMAN: The next morning, when you found the casings that showed it was the state troopers, it was not the students, who opened fire, as if there was some kind of crossfire situation, it’s astounding that you came onto the campus and there was no crime scene tape.

CECIL WILLIAMS: They didn’t give that incident enough respect to even put yellow crime scene posted around it. And I was really by myself, initially, when I arrived on the campus. Then, in a few minutes, the maintenance staff from State College arrived, and they started picking up debris. But it was just an open field. In fact, I understand that after the shooting, in the late of the night, that everyone left, and it was just a left-open area subject to anything.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, in the trial, all the state troopers were cleared, but it was Cleve Sellers, a well-known civil rights leader — he was with SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He had come to town, one of the leaders of the protest against the segregated bowling alley. It was only Cleve Sellers who would be — serve time in jail.

CECIL WILLIAMS: That was really an insult to, really, the injury, because actually he was even charged not for being involved that night, but an incident on February the 6th, two days earlier, where I was present, and then charged with inciting to riot and some other trumped-up charges. But again —

AMY GOODMAN: Inciting to riot because he was one of the leaders of the movement to try to integrate this bowling alley in town.

CECIL WILLIAMS: Yes. He became involved. And, of course, he had the experience he had of a well-seasoned civil rights worker and was there really to help. But it was his principal purpose to be in Orangeburg really to integrate the bowling alley.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened to this bowling alley? I was stunned last night, just going down the street here from South Carolina State, to see this decrepit, abandoned bowling alley. You see the bowling balls still inside. But there is no plaque there, no suggestion of what took place. And, in fact, even the plaque here at South Carolina State, there’s a small plaque on the site. And then, just down the road is sort of the monument to the students wounded and killed.

CECIL WILLIAMS: Yes. The memorial to them is not really on the site where the incident took place, but about 3,000 yards maybe from where it happened, really close to Highway 601. The Highway Patrolmen and National Guardsmen and other law enforcement people were in the street. The students were on their campus. It’s ironic that, actually, to actually fire upon them, the Highway Patrolmen left the street and went on the campus, went up the hill and started firing at the students for eight seconds. Unbelievable.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is the plaque and the memorial not where the students actually fell?

CECIL WILLIAMS: I have no idea. Perhaps it could have been because they had plans to maybe build a building on that site. And it is in the center of the campus, but I have no idea of the real reason why it was built so far away.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s certainly prominent in your museum. Cecil Williams, talk about your museum, why you founded it, and some of the exhibits within it. You’ve got the casings there of the state troopers.

CECIL WILLIAMS: Well, for many years, more than, in fact, a decade, I’ve been talking with officials about trying to start a museum, because I feel that the things that people in South Carolina did have gone, from a historical standpoint, much overlooked, and there was so much history here. In fact, in my opinion, and the opinion of many historians, this is a place where, in Clarendon County, actually, the civil rights movement began. The Briggs v. Elliott case in Clarendon, South Carolina, was really the template case leading to what is called Brown v. Board of Education. And, of course, the historical event that most historians give to beginning the civil rights movement — Montgomery, Alabama — really, they were reacting to what the Brown case was all about. And so, it’s really impossible for them to be reacting to something that was really started by a South Carolina case.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, so explain. We know it as Brown v. Board of Education.

CECIL WILLIAMS: Briggs only gets a footnote in history for many, many reasons. First of all, there’s some information that states that the judges did not feel — the Supreme Court judges did not feel that it would be proper to name it after a South Carolina case, and if — the Topeka, Kansas, case, which came on later, which followed the Briggs v. Elliott case, would be the proper way to do it. The Topeka, Kansas case, of course, is in the middle of the United States, involved Linda Brown. But it was the Briggs case that was really the template of the five cases. And this was also the first case in history that attacked segregation in schools. So, from that standpoint, it preceded all the things that most historians refer to as the beginning of the civil rights movement.

AMY GOODMAN: Who was Briggs?

CECIL WILLIAMS: Harry Briggs was a dirt farmer in Clarendon County. He had returned from the Navy. And as it was before he went into the service to give his time in serving this country and when he returned, he found that things had not changed in Clarendon County, and much of the South, for that matter. So, he wanted to change that. He wanted to have his child to receive a better education. The dilapidated schools of Clarendon County, as it was very common around the state, were really disgraceful. The educational facilities were not up to par. Books were not available. And so, he wanted to sue, initially, for a bus, so that kids would be able to ride. Some children in Clarendon County had to walk over eight miles to and from school, and where white school buses were provided for most white children to have, but not for African-American schools. So, in addition to having dilapidated schools, again, the circumstances around that were also very outdated. So, something had to happen. And it was in Clarendon County, 30 miles from where we sit in this auditorium, that Harry Briggs and others and the Briggs v. Elliott petitioners got together and filed a case, that really was the first case to attack segregation in public education.

AMY GOODMAN: And in your museum, you have — well, talk about the Bible.

CECIL WILLIAMS: Again, it has been my obsession to really change things and to really make a museum that really not only recognizes and collects this information, but also to reclaim South Carolina’s history as really as being at the forefront of the American civil rights movement. I wanted to get that kind of designation. And seeing that this was not being done, I took it upon myself, from my own resources, to start this. I had a 3,500-square-foot building that was formerly my studio and where my wife lived, and I began to, about six months ago, change it into a museum.

But the Bible that I have obtained from the Briggs family was the historical Briggs family Bible, really wanted by museums for almost 60 years. And this was really an achievement for the Briggs family, thick enough of the display that I have placed in my museum, to really place it in the Cecil Williams Museum for all to see.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you have a remarkable history, Cecil Williams. You’re now at 83 years old.


AMY GOODMAN: When did you first pick up a camera?

CECIL WILLIAMS: I picked up my first camera at 9 years old. It was the household camera, but used mostly by my brother. And when he took up music, then it passed on to me. Of course, I was the pest around the house, taking my family as they were getting dressed. But soon that escalated into maybe taking pictures around Orangeburg. At 12 and 13 years old, I was doing weddings. At 14, I became a correspondent for a national publication, Jet. And I think that was something that inspired me really to go further and really be more intense in my coverage of things that were happening at the time, because, again, this is really the early 1955, 1956, when things were really happening, again, leading up to Brown v. Board of Education.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you film for, what did you photograph for Jet?

CECIL WILLIAMS: A photographed just about anything in the state of South Carolina relative to civil rights for Jet. Jet at the time and other publications like that were necessary, because the mainstream publications and newspapers and radio stations, largely they did not cover African-American news. There were marches that went unreported. So, Jet and other publications needed someone in the field. So I was one of the 25 correspondents, probably the only living correspondent because starting at such an early age, 14 years old. I was really, again, on the scene at that time to cover things for a national publication.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it true you lost a scholarship here at South Carolina State because of the pictures you took of protests in Orangeburg?

CECIL WILLIAMS: Well, the students of South Carolina State, about four months now before the Montgomery bus boycott, which they — the students joined the boycott that was going on in Orangeburg, where we had started a movement that we called the Orangeburg Freedom Movement. At the time, and it was also about the time I was getting ready to graduate from Wilkinson High School, being the photographer for State College and Claflin University, my alma mater, I was given a scholarship to attend South Carolina State and a stipend. And after my pictures appeared in Jet magazine, that really showed the uncooperation of the president of South Carolina State University. they rescinded all on my scholarship. But President Manning of Claflin University did offer me a similar scholarship, and I obtained my degree from Claflin University,

AMY GOODMAN: And explain your desire to be an architect and what happened. I mean, you’ve been thwarted in various ways that you very creatively got around, but a very sad comment on higher education in America.

CECIL WILLIAMS: Well, I thought the educational opportunities at both State and Claflin were admirable, but I really initially wanted to be an architect, because I scribbled and drew at an early age. And, of course, the camera gave me an outlet for that, but I thought that I wouldn’t be able to make a living maybe as a photographer. So architecture was my real interest. But after my senior year, I wasn’t even able to get the application to attend Clemson University. It was the only school in the state that I could receive a degree in architecture.

AMY GOODMAN: And where’s Clemson?

CECIL WILLIAMS: Clemson University is in Clemson, South Carolina, in the upper part of the state. And it was at the time segregated. But it did turn out to be my destiny that I returned in 1960 to Clemson being one of the three African Americans on the campus at the moment that Harvey Gantt became the first of our race to really integrate Clemson. If you were to go to Charlotte, North Carolina, you would see that the magnificence of his architecture shaped downtown Charlotte, North Carolina. He was an outstanding student and the first African American to attend Clemson University. And I photographed that for Jet.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, Harvey Gantt became mayor of Charlotte.

CECIL WILLIAMS: Yes, and he later ran against a staunch segregationist, Jesse Helms. And he lost, but, again, made a great statement. And by the way, a young Barack Obama was encouraged and worked in the campaign for Harvey Gantt. A lot of people don’t relate that, as well, but there’s a picture in one of my books of Barack Obama wearing one of Harvey Gantt’s T-shirts at the time, so I’m sure he was inspired by Harvey Gantt’s bravery.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Barack Obama was here in 2007. There is a point plaque in the back of the MLK Auditorium, because he was part of the 2007 Democratic presidential primary debate with John Edwards of North Carolina, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and others.

CECIL WILLIAMS: I have a picture that I took at the time of Barack Obama when he was in Orangeburg and as he campaigned around the state. And I think that he did a magnificent job as the president of the United States. And what a contrast to what we have today. I think that a more reason of why it’s important for me to preserve this history, the fact that we must pay tribute to people who sacrificed so much for this country, to change this country. And youth growing up today not seeing this in history books, what else is there for them to really be reminded of the sacrifices that were made? They, I think, would take a better interest in their own lives if they can look back and be encouraged by the bravery that was exhibited by people that came before them, and maybe then model their lives after them.

AMY GOODMAN: You were a photographer of John F. Kennedy.

CECIL WILLIAMS: Yes, I met Kennedy when I was a senior at Claflin University. I had gone to New York to stay with my aunt and uncle for a few days during the semester break. And I read in the paper that John F. — Senator John F. Kennedy would appear at the Roosevelt Hotel. I didn’t have my press pass with me at the time, but appearing at the hotel, the hotel security were about to throw me out, and then Kennedy and Jacqueline came up to the podium, he saw what was going on, stopped them from throwing me out of the hotel. And we became very good friends at that time. I think I became one of his favorite lensmen, because I was invited to really be in places and have really positions to photograph him from as he campaigned for the presidency, which he later won.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain those moments in 1960 and what you remember most fondly, or what most interested you, as you captured his image behind the camera.

CECIL WILLIAMS: Well, again, I believe that Kennedy, had he won — there was much speculation, the fact that he was a Catholic, that he might not even be an electable candidate. So, there was much debate between him and Nixon and others who were interested in that office at the time. And so, when he announced at that January press conference he was going to run, I was really in his corner. I thought he would do many things in his presidency and really lead this country out of the situation we had, especially racial change-wise, and really bring this country to realize that, you know, we’re all Americans, and we are all in the same boat together. But it was some of the most memorable moments of my life to be in the presence of a person that went on to become one of our great presidents. This was a time where something like that, a little country boy like me, Orangeburg, South Carolina — really, I could not be encouraged any more as I was when I photographed him. I have photographs in my museum of him, and he was such a memorable and unforgettable person in my life.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your thoughts on the president today?

CECIL WILLIAMS: I feel less safe today. We are living in a climate — it seems like we are in a situation where it might be that we will have to fight the battle to overcome racism and so many other problems all over again. We are very blessed to be here. I feel that the administration is doing a very poor job of relating to Americans and really working on the things that really change this country, working on the big problems that we need to face in this country. And so much — every day, there are things in the news, so I’m very disappointed in the government. Thankfully, the country has the resilience to really be self-supporting in ideals and principles, that even without great leadership from Washington, we are surviving, and we are doing well. But it is something that worries me quite a bit. And I hope that the people in this country, I feel, will elect a new president, that would not have the same kinds of problems behind him as we have with our current president.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you most proud of, Cecil Williams?

CECIL WILLIAMS: Well, I’m most proud, of course, my beautiful wife, that I feel very blessed to be married to a young lady who is the president of the Orangeburg NAACP. I have — I’m very also grateful of the fact that I had parents that really believed in me. They bought camera equipment for me, supported me all during the years. And I feel very blessed that I have had the very best of education, in spite of the segregated educational institutions I had to attend. But I made the most of it. And I feel that really I had really great teachers, even though it was a segregated institution that I attended. But I felt that the teachers were interested in the students. And I feel very grateful that — for the upbringing that I had, in spite of the segregated South Carolina that I lived in.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, what message do you have for young photographers and for just people in this country, because you were a photographer, you were an activist, you were a documentarian of the history of this country?

CECIL WILLIAMS: I would suggest that photographers today and young people think more beyond taking pictures and think more about content. We need today, with all of the social media platforms and so forth, that we need to actually produce content to appear on these, and content that has a positive message. There are so many photographers now today that actually photography itself, I don’t think, is a wise choice for maybe some occupation for the future. But again, making something to be on — in social media and on television, using a camera, might be maybe something we want to pursue. But I would say that, to the youth of America, to really don’t give up your dream, pursue it. You do have to work hard. Sometimes things happen just by themselves, but largely it’s left up to you. And do the right thing.

AMY GOODMAN: And I just want to ask you one last question. When we came to your museum last night, on the floor you had a apparatus that you just brought from New York, where we came from, from the Jacob Javits Center, because you had put on display what you call a toaster?

CECIL WILLIAMS: It’s a film toaster. Photographers like me, who started shooting film, today we found ourselves in a situation where our film now, because of the age — like, digital came along about 1999. And so, my film was getting to be 40, 50 years old, and it’s beginning to fade away. The current and the conventional way of digitizing film was using maybe flatbed scanners. And that was too slow, and especially when you had, like I did, like maybe 600,00, 800,000 film. So, in converting them, I had to come up with an apparatus that did it much faster. And the film toaster, as I have called it, does that. It really is a platform from which a digital camera is mounted, a light and so forth, and then you’re able to make a close-up picture of each negative. But you do it in a fifth of a second, which is like 60 times faster than a flatbed scanner. So that’s what I brought to the market. And again, I’ve been very blessed. I’m selling it all over the world. I had a gentleman this week to arrive in New York from Brazil, and he wanted to carry one back with him. And I was able to put it together. And that was the reason for all that clutter you saw on the floor of my museum, as we were preparing to put away some of the things we brought from the New York show.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for spending this time with us, Cecil J. Williams, photographer, author, best known for his photography documenting the civil rights movement here in South Carolina beginning in the [1950s]. He’s the founder of the Cecil Williams Civil Rights Museum here in Orangeburg, South Carolina. To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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