If it were not for Orangeburg native and photographer Cecil Williams, the world might not have known much of what was happening in the American South during the Civil Rights movement.
“Had I not taken the photographs, many events that I cover would not have been — there wouldn’t have been any historical record left of them,” Williams told South Carolina Radio Network. “Often I was the only person there with a camera.”
Not only was Williams a chronicler, he was a participant in the movement. He was arrested twice while photographing demonstrations for national publications such as Jet magazine.
“Local news media would not really cover events where African-Americans were involved and especially if it was something that was against the Constitution or the Jim Crow laws that prevailed at the time,” he said. “Thank goodness for the people who marched and demonstrated and persisted over a long period of time in keeping their eye on the prize that things gradually began to change.”
Williams has digitized his historic photos from their original film format and collected them into a book called Unforgettable: Celebrating a Time of Live, Hope and Bravery. An exhibit at the South Carolina State Library features photos from the book, including photos taken from the Charleston Hospital Workers’ strike in 1968.
Williams said it took about three years to put the book together, including painstakingly attempting to identify those in the photos.
“I’m thankful that I was able to bring this book to fruition and have it so our history will be more accurately recorded,” he said.
Despite the humiliations Williams suffered through harassment and arrests, he is grateful that he was able to tell the story of what happened through his photographs.
“Freedom is not free. Things like that just don’t happen,” he said. “It’s not a vacuum. It just doesn’t happen by itself. You have to actually fight for freedom or fight for democracy and fight for a law to be changed.”
Williams said he thanked God for being able to serve as a “chronicler” of the era.
“Images mimic life so history then becomes realistic when you can see these people’s faces, what clothing they had on and a lot of times their faces reflected the determined type of attitude they had towards the serious nature of bringing down the laws that made them second-class citizens,” Williams said. “This is a period that we don’t want to repeat in this country.”
The Unforgettable exhibit is at the South Carolina State Library in Columbia through February 24. It is free.
Click here to see more of Cecil Williams’ photos or to purchase his books.