Collection: Cecil Williams

Cecil J. Williams (born November 26, 1937) is an American photographer, publisher, author, painter, and inventor whose photographs document the civil rights movement beginning in the 1950s. Born in Orangeburg, SC, Williams acquired a hand-me-down camera when he was 9, and by age 15 was working as a professional and freelance photographer for such publications as Jet, the Afro-American, the Pittsburgh Courier, and a stringer for the Associated Press. Today Williams is lauded as one of the country’s most accomplished visual artists. He has worked as a professional photographer, author and publisher of three books, and designer/architect of three residences, but he is most well known as the chronicler of the civil rights era.

His photographs are considered the most comprehensive collection of the civil rights era and have been featured in 126 books, 17 newspapers, and 11 television documentaries and counting. In 1995, Mercer University Press published “Freedom and Justice,” Williams’ photographic documentary of the Civil Rights Movement. The photographs were exhibited at the University of South Carolina, Furman University, Rice Museum in Georgetown, Claflin University, Furman University, Stanback Museum in Orangeburg, Museum of the New South in Charlotte, and McKissick Museum, Columbia. In 1996 he was featured as one of four civil rights photographers in a screening of “Exposures of a Movement,” at Central Piedmont Community College, Charlotte, North Carolina.

Other professional accomplishments in the arts include being selected by the South Carolina Arts Commission as an Artist-in-Residence at William A. Perry High School in Columbia in 1995, a 1994 Commendation by the South Carolina General Assembly for a photographic exhibit, “Quiet Heroes,” official yearbook photographer for South Carolina State University, Claflin University, the South Carolina NAACP, and the National Conference of Black Mayors. Williams’ credits these experiences with his ability to amass a wealth of historical documentation and political and social experiences. Williams received the Presidential Citation from Dr. Henry N. Tisdale, president of Claflin University, for outstanding contributions to the college and community. He also received the Freedom Fighter Award, presented by the Orangeburg branch of the NAACP, and the 2005 Martin Luther King, Jr. Unity Breakfast Community Service Awards.

In 2019, with his wife Barbara, his sister Brenda, Cecil created South Carolina's first and only civil rights museum. Before 12 years of age, Cecil Williams’ camera had captured the petitioners in Clarendon County as they lit the torch of freedom. In 10th grade, he photographed Thurgood Marshall coming to Charleston for the Briggs case, and again one year later, speaking at Claflin. In 1955, he became the youngest-ever JET Magazine photographer. In 1960, upon being thrown out of a New York press conference, he became JFK’s favorite lensman. Cecil is Director of Historic Preservation at Claflin University. In this task, he also oversees one of the largest digital film transformation projects in the southeast. In May 2023, Cecil received Doctor of Humane Letters Honorary Degree from Paul Quinn College in Dallas Texas.

Available Works by Cecil Williams