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Cecil Williams Expands Museum to Spotlight South Carolina's Civil Rights Legacy

South Carolina civil rights photographer Cecil Williams shows a photograph he took of Thurgood Marshall at his museum, the only civil rights museum in the state, Dec. 12 2023;   -  
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Jeffrey Collins/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.


Photographer Cecil Williams, an indispensable chronicler of South Carolina's civil rights history, has dedicated decades to capturing the essence of pivotal moments that have shaped the state's narrative.

From the fervour of sit-ins and prayer protests to the profound portraits of African Americans breaking barriers by integrating universities and ascending to federal judgeships, Williams has meticulously documented it all through his lens.

Now, after years of tireless work, Williams is on the cusp of realizing his chief dream – the transformation and relocation of his South Carolina Civil Rights Museum from its current abode in his converted residence in Orangeburg to a significantly larger and more prominent downtown building. This ambitious move is made possible by a substantial $23 million federal grant, signalling not only a physical expansion but also a broader impact on the preservation and dissemination of South Carolina's civil rights legacy.

Williams, who celebrated his 85th birthday last month, is a living testament to the power of photography in shaping historical narratives. Reflecting on the importance of his craft, he remarked, "Photography is so important to telling stories about history." He highlighted the unique role his work plays in shedding light on South Carolina's contributions to the American Civil Rights Movement, a chapter often overlooked on the national stage.

The stories Williams captures in his photographs are not merely visual records but encapsulate the spirit of sacrifice and triumph over adversity. He spoke passionately about the need to unveil the untold narratives of his home state, stating, "But in South Carolina, we have so many untold stories that are yet to be known. And one of the ways to save these stories, these stories of sacrifice, these stories of overcoming, is to have a museum like we are developing here in Orangeburg."

Williams, whose journey in photography began at the age of 9, recounted his early struggles. Even as South Carolina newspapers resisted hiring a Black photographer, Williams persevered by taking his work to The Associated Press. His efforts paid off, as the AP utilized many of his photographs during the tumultuous 1960s, providing a platform for his impactful visual storytelling.

In 2019, Williams transformed his residential space and darkroom in Orangeburg into the Cecil Williams, South Carolina Civil Rights Museum. Notably, it stands as the sole civil rights museum in the state. 

The imminent move to a more expansive downtown building is not merely a physical expansion, but a strategic initiative to enhance the museum's outreach and impact. Williams envisions a space that not only preserves history but also educates and inspires future generations.

This development aligns with broader efforts to revitalize Railroad Corner in Orangeburg, positioning it as a gateway to the city, which boasts a predominantly African American population and is home to two historically Black universities. 

The revitalization project is a testament to the profound cultural and historical significance of Orangeburg.

Williams' journey is emblematic of resilience and determination, echoing the very stories he seeks to preserve. The forthcoming expansion of the Cecil Williams South Carolina Civil Rights Museum holds the promise of becoming a beacon, illuminating the often overlooked but rich civil rights history of South Carolina for generations to come.

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