Grey’s Anatomy actor Jesse Williams didn’t rest on his laurels after accepting the Humanitarian Award at the 2016 BET Awards Sunday evening.
Instead of thanking his agent, producers and nameless fans, Williams used this thank-you speech time to break down the essence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Yesterday would have been young Tamir Rice’s 14th birthday,” Williams said, paying tribute to the Cleveland police shooting victim.
“So I don’t want to hear any more about how far we’ve come when paid public servants can pull a drive by on a 12-year-old playing alone in a park in broad daylight killing him on television then going home to make a sandwich.”
Williams, 34, did thank his wife, and parents for their love and support.
But he quickly shifted to the unsung on the front lines of the struggle.
“Now, this award, this is not for me,” he said.
“This is for the real organizers all over the country, activist civil rights attorneys, the parents, the teachers, the students who are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do. All right?” he explained. “It’s kind of basic mathematics, the more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize.”
In October 2014, Williams stood with thousands of demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, to protest the shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown.
After inspiring the crowd, Williams continued his message backstage.
“People are getting more comfortable being political,” Williams told reporters.
“We live here, we pay taxes, we should be able to talk about it. Just because I can dunk or act doesn’t mean I have to shut the hell up about issues that actually impact me and my people.
“We cannot allow the society to separate, to extract from the black community, the best and brightest in a particular genre of expression that makes money for white corporations, and then separate us from the rest of the people. People out here are suffering. People out here are poor and abandoned and unsupported, and just because we get to be here tonight doesn’t mean that we’ve made it.”
The BET Awards Sunday featured tributes to Prince and Muhammad Ali, and a performance by Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar. But this year, the actor Jesse Williams commanded the spotlight with an impassioned speech calling for an end to police killings, racial inequality and cultural appropriation.
His was far from the only political statement of the evening: With the words “Don’t Trump America” written on his back, the singer Usher used his performance to make a statement against Donald J. Trump. And when Taraji P. Henson, the star of “Empire,” accepted her best actress award, she also warned the audience about Mr. Trump.
But it was Mr. Williams who provided the highlight of the night with a nearly five-minute speech, delivered after he accepted the year’s humanitarian award.
Since 2009, Mr. Williams has been played the role of Dr. Jackson Avery on “Grey’s Anatomy.” When he is not working on the set of the hospital drama, Mr. Williams, a former teacher, champions causes related to civil rights. He starred in and produced “Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement,” adocumentary that premiered last month on BET. He produces Question Bridge, an art project about the experience of black men in America, and works with Sankofa, an organization dedicated to ending racial injustice.
The child of a white mother and a black father, Mr. Williams told The Guardian last October that his parents had shaped his activist roots, and said that being biracial allowed him to see both sides of a cultural divide.
“I have access to rooms and information,” he told the newspaper. “I am white and I am also black. I am invisible man in a lot of these scenarios. I know how white people talk about black people. I know how black people talk about white folks.”
But on Sunday, he delivered a speech that spoke solely to black Americans, and drew thunderous applause and shouts from the audience. Mr. Williams addressed the deaths of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and Rekia Boyd, all black people who died during confrontations with the police.
“‘You’re free,’ they keep telling us,” he said. “‘But she would’ve been alive if she hadn’t acted so … free.’”
He ended his speech by calling for an end to racial oppression and cultural appropriation, including a reference to the Billie Holiday song, “Strange Fruit,” a meditation on racism and lynchings.
“Ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit,” he said. “The thing is, though, the thing is that just because we’re magic, doesn’t mean we’re not real.”
Read His Speech in Full:
“This award, this is not for me. This is for the real organizers all over the country. The activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students, that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do.
All right? It’s kind of basic mathematics:, the more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize. Now this is also in particular for the black women, in particular, who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you.
Now, what we’ve been doing is looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to de-escalate, disarm and not kill white people every day. So what’s going to happen is we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.
Now — I’ve got more, y’all. Yesterday would’ve been young Tamir Rice’s 14th birthday, so I don’t want to hear anymore about how far we’ve come when paid public servants can pull a drive-by on a 12-year-old playing alone in a park in broad daylight, killing him on television and then going home to make a sandwich. Tell Rekia Boyd how it’s so much better to live in 2012 than 1612 or 1712. Tell that to Eric Garner. Tell that to Sandra Bland. Tell that to Darrien Hunt.
Now the thing is though, all of us in here getting money, that alone isn’t going to stop this. All right? Now dedicating our lives to get money just to give it right back for someone’s brand on our body, when we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies and now we pray to get paid for brands on our bodies.
There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of. There has been no job we haven’t done, there’s been no tax they haven’t levied against us, and we’ve paid all of them. But freedom is somehow always conditional here. “You’re free,” they keep telling us. But she would’ve been alive if she hadn’t acted so… “free.”
Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter. But, you know what though? The hereafter is a hustle. We want it now. And let’s get a couple of things straight, just a little side note: The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job, all right, stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.
We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind, while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil, black gold. Ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is, though, the thing is that just because we’re magic, doesn’t mean we’re not real.”