ORANGEBURG — He is witness to history. He documented the civil rights movement from its beginning in the segregated schools of Clarendon County, to the peaceful boycotts on the streets of this old farming town, to the massacre at South Carolina State — through six decades of social revolution.
But Cecil Williams, one of the most noted photographers of the civil rights movement, won't be present for the crowning moment: Tuesday's inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation's first black president.
"I wish I could be a part of the inauguration, but I can't go because I can't have access," Williams said. He sought out the
Obama campaign, but couldn't get through to the right person. He asked for help from Jim Clyburn, South Carolina's powerful Democratic congressman, but hasn't heard back.
Williams said he knows the congressman is flooded with requests and is consumed with pressing business in Congress. "I'm not alone in being left out."
Still, he said, "It would be the fulfilment of the greatest thing in my life."
Sure, he could troop to Washington with tens of thousands of others to stand on the Mall or along Pennsylvania Avenue hoping to glimpse history. Or, he joked, he could haul along a powerful telephoto lens.
Williams wants none of that. He wants to take the simple, telling, personal, up-close photos that are the hallmarks of his career, such as those that line the walls of the angular, modernist studio he built here on the outskirts of his boyhood home. He wants to be with the Obama entourage before and after the swearing-in to catch that special moment in history, the iconic photograph.
The first photos Williams took as a child in the 1940s captured the world around him in Orangeburg County. They showed people chatting on the street, families performing daily chores, children preparing for school: "simple things in my community."
Those early photos focused almost exclusively on one race, blacks.
Imbedded in his memory is the first time he consciously recognized racial discrimination. He was 7, with his mother, a schoolteacher, boarding a public bus in Orangeburg. She instructed him to go to the back of the bus where blacks were required to sit.
Williams also remembers how a couple of years later, he and his best friend, who looked white, toyed with segregation. They laughed at the system when his friend would go into whites-only stores and be served.
As a preteen in the late 1940s, Williams sensed that his photographs documented life in a parallel world of second-class citizens subjugated by a white-controlled system.
But he didn't realize that with his first camera, a hand-me-down Kodak Baby Brownie, he had begun a lifelong effort to chronicle a social revolution. He just knew he had a knack for capturing stories with his lens.
By the time he turned 14, he recalled, "I knew we were doing something important." By then, the NAACP had begun working in Clarendon County to force the segregated schools to provide buses for black children who had to walk, often miles, to school while white students rode by them on public school buses.
That effort developed into a full-blown legal challenge of the doctrine of "separate but equal" education that kept blacks in segregated, substandard schools. The case, known as Briggs vs. Elliott, was the first of five lawsuits from around the country that would be combined into one before the U.S. Supreme Court. They would result in the court's landmark 1954 decision in Brown vs. The Board of Education, declaring segregated schools unconstitutional.
Williams lived just a few miles west of the Clarendon County town of Summerton where the Briggs case originated, and took photos of the events and people involved for the NAACP.
Among his most famous is a shot of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall stepping off a train in South Carolina to handle the lawsuit as a lawyer for the NAACP.
Williams' camera captured all of those involved from Marshall to the Rev. Joseph Armstrong DeLaine, the principal of a black Clarendon County school, who started the whole thing by simply asking the school district to provide a bus for black students.
The NAACP paid Williams $5 or $10 for his photos, sometimes nothing.
On to the national stage
By 1952, when Williams was still a teen, he made it to the big time for a black photographer: He was hired as a correspondent by Jet magazine, a Chicago news weekly for blacks that would make its name covering the civil rights movement.
Williams got $30 a photo from Jet, good money at the time. He also sold photos to a few black newspapers, mainly in the North.
Tensions between blacks and whites heated in the months after the Brown ruling. In Orangeburg, black parents petitioned to get their children immediately into white schools. Some white business owners retaliated: They fired blacks who signed the petitions, called in loans and stopped deliveries of bread and milk. Blacks, who outnumbered whites in Orangeburg County by 2-to-1, struck back with a selective boycott of white businesses.
That boycott served as a harbinger of a major change in efforts to push civil rights. Williams said a couple of the leaders of the boycott went to Montgomery, Ala., a few months later to offer advice in what would become one of the most-famous civil rights actions — the Montgomery bus boycott. That protest began after Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat for a white passenger on Dec. 1, 1955, and was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct.
It bothers Williams to this day that groundbreaking civil rights efforts in South Carolina have taken a back seat to similar historic events elsewhere that garnered greater public attention.
"South Carolina's history has been hijacked. ... I believe you have here the birthplace of the civil rights movement," Williams said. He drew a circle in the air with one arm, and said that within just a small area in and around Orangeburg, blacks took the first major steps to turn relations with whites from "accommodation to confrontation."
Ultimately, it resulted in violence. On Feb. 8, 1968, police fired on a crowd of black students from South Carolina State and Claflin. Three in the crowd died and 28 sustained injuries.
The Orangeburg Massacre, the first such campus shooting in the nation, ultimately would share the fate of other South Carolina civil rights milestones: It would be overshadowed by the 1970 campus shootings at Kent State in Ohio, in which four died, and the Jackson State College shootings in Mississippi, where two died.
Williams photographed the beginning of the student protest that led to the Orangeburg Massacre, and the day after the killings. He missed the night of the shootings because police barricades prevented him from reaching the campus. That may have saved his life, he said, because to do his type of photography he would have been in the midst of the action.
That's where Williams wants to be at Obama's inauguration.
For now, he said, he comforts himself believing that he may already have shot one of the iconic photos of Obama. He took it during the primary when Obama arrived in Columbia for a rally on the Capitol grounds. The photo shows Obama, head high, looking up, as if into the future, while the crowd stares at him.
Still, Williams hopes for another chance. "I don't know whether I've taken the iconic one — yet."
But with the inauguration just ahead, he said, "I've accepted the fact that my wife and I will be looking at it on television."