Outspoken about Ferguson, Jesse Williams may be this generation’s Harry Belafonte


Harry Belafonte, left. (NBC via AP) Jesse Williams, right. (Christian Alminana/AP)

There are many ways to get celebrity activism wrong when it comes to a situation like the one that has emerged in Ferguson, Mo.

Appearing to be uninformed is a huge no-no, as is calling for a plan when you don’t have one — sorry Nelly. But if one can offer fiery rhetoric absent sanctimony and full of razor-sharp opinions, well, people take notice.

Enter Jesse Williams, the actor who plays the hunky Dr. Jackson Avery on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.” Williams appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday. Clad in a hoodie, he may have looked like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, but once he opened his mouth, he sounded like Harry Belafonte.

Yes, radical, Occupy Wall Street protester-supporting, Fidel Castro-befriending, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice-shunning Harry Belafonte.

“Police have been beating the hell out of black people for a very, very, very long time, before the advent of the video camera,” said Williams, who also spoke out after the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. “And despite the advent of the video camera, there’s still an incredible trend of police brutality and killing in the street.”

So far, Williams, 33, seems best suited to continue the legacy of black Hollywood activism associated with Belafonte. In his memoir, “My Song,” Belafonte wrote, “I wasn’t an artist who’d become an activist. I was an activist who’d become an artist.”


Harry Belafonte leads a line of picketers from Harvard and surrounding colleges in protest against lunch counter segregation in the South. Students picketed the Woolworth store in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Mass., April 21, 1960. (J. Walter Green/AP)

Belafonte was not just a public face of civil rights activism or the conduit between Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedy brothers. He was a private financier as well, giving $40,000 to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a group that, decades later, Attorney General Eric Holder credited with President Obama’s election and his own appointment at the Justice Department. In 2010, when he spoke before SNCC’s 50th reunion, Belafonte wrote that Holder told the crowd: “You can draw a line from SNCC to the White House, and our first black president.” (Monday, the President announced that Holder would be arriving in Ferguson Wednesday to monitor an investigation into Brown’s killing.)

Belafonte didn’t just fund SNCC — a young, radical organization that separated from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to avoid leaving decisions to a “board of elders,” as the singer put it. He paid for the Kings to have a secretary and a housekeeper to help Coretta Scott with the task of raising four children while their father was being jailed for civil disobedience. When Freedom Riders needed money to keep voter registration efforts afloat in Mississippi, Belafonte, then 37, raised $70,000. He stuffed the cash into a doctor’s bag and flew to Mississippi in person, accompanied by Sidney Poitier. The flight was followed by a harrowing drive to Greenwood, Miss., where Poitier, Belafonte and volunteers who picked them up from the airport had to avoid getting shot or run off the road by the Ku Klux Klan.


From “My Song”: Harry Belafonte backstage at Madison Square Garden with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Photo courtesy of Harry Belafonte)

Almost half a century later at 85, he was equally outspoken and ready for action. Here’s what Belafonte told the Hollywood Reporter when it asked him if he would like to see Mitt Romney become president: “Only if I would like to see the end of civilization. No, absolutely not. Mitt Romney is not my cup of tea at all.”

More than any of his contemporaries, Williams appears to be carrying Belafonte’s torch. Before becoming an actor, he taught history and English in low-income public charter schools in Philadelphia. He wanted to be a civil rights attorney, and is the youngest member of the board of directors of the Advancement Project, an organization created in 1999 by civil rights attorneys looking to further the work of “landmark civil rights victories of earlier eras.” Belafonte also sits on the board. In 2012, his production company debuted his “Question Bridge: Black Males” project at Sundance. The video installation consists of 1,500 videos of 150 black men from around the country edited together into a stream-of-consciousness conversation. (Check it out at the “Question Bridge” site.)

If Belafonte was a pop-culture ambassador explaining the horrors of Jim Crow America to the White House, Williams is a pop-culture ambassador broadcasting anguish over Brown’s shooting to 16oo Pennsylvania Ave. and beyond.

 Williams was invited to attend the ceremony announcing My Brother’s Keeper, Obama’s initiative to uplift boys of color. Williams shared the experience on Instagram with the caption, “Asking You To Listen. #EastWingFlow #mybrotherskeeper #sonsandbrothers.”

But Williams is not just a patsy for a White House program that Jelani Cobb and others have criticized for its roots in respectability politics, saying it shifts responsibility for problems stemming from structural racism back to the very populations that suffer from them. Williams arguably has more freedom than the president to call out racism in American society. The most he has to worry about is ticking off ABC executives, and he’s already demonstrated his ability to feed and shelter himself in the absence of a Hollywood paycheck.

If he is mincing his words, he is doing a poor job of it.

“Victims of these shootings are immediately vilified onscreen in the media, on the online networks, trying to justify putting these boys on trial for their own murder and they’re always found guilty of their own murder,” Williams said Sunday, broaching a point that black Twitter users illustrated with the “#IfTheyGunnedMeDown” hashtag. “We don’t feel that that’s what happens when white people shoot up schools or theaters … it feels imbalanced because it is imbalanced.”

Like Belafonte, Williams doesn’t shy from prickly interactions, but his occur online. Williams began tweeting and tumbling about Brown, who was killed on Aug. 9, on Aug. 10. On Aug. 13, he broadcasted a command to his 715,000 Twitter followers: “All of you vile, incurious, justify-anything, white supremacist cowards need to miss me w/ the bulls— & unfollow, forthwith. #Ferguson.” When a follower informed Williams his tweeting was turning her off as a fan, Williams wrote, “Please disabuse yourself of the notion that my purpose on earth is to tuck ignorance in at night. #ViolenceIncites #Ferguson.”

CENTURY CITY, CA - MAY 18: Actor Jesse Williams arrives on the red carpet at the 2014 Sports Spectacular Gala at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on May 18, 2014 in Century City, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Sports Spectacular) Jesse Williams. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Sports Spectacular)

On Tuesday, Williams was at it again, sarcastically pointing out a possible conflict of interest for Bob McCulloch, the prosecuting attorney in the Brown case. CBS News reported McCulloch’s father, mother, brother, uncle and cousin have all worked for the St. Louis police department.  His father was killed on duty trying to arrest a kidnapper. The suspect was black.

Williams, like Belafonte in his support of SNCC, is also unafraid of activist groups with a younger bent. Williams has chosen to align himself with the relatively young Advancement Project rather than the NAACP, which has now become, well, establishment. Speaking on CNN, Williams took a harder tone than the NAACP, which was heavily criticized for its paternalistic Twitter response to Brown’s killing. (On Aug. 11, the organization chastened followers in a tweet that has since been deleted: “#MikeBrown When someone outside of our race commits murder we want upheaval but we need same for all murder.”) Williams did the same when speaking on the death of Jordan Davis to HLN. “People are tired of the criminalization of the black body,” Williams said. “It’s a tradition in this country, and people are just kind of feeling fatigued about constantly having to go through this all year, every year.”

Williams is not alone in voicing his frustrations with police brutality or the ever-deteriorating circumstances in Ferguson — but it is Williams, like Belafonte before him, who has emerged as the popular figure willing to give voice to the younger id of the movement rather than stand on polite objections.

For Williams, this is just part of life — and like so many others, he’s tired, too. In 2013, he spoke with BlogXilla about Martin while promoting “The Butler.” “Being a black man in this country is sometimes an act of aggression in itself,” he said.

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.

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Lindsey Bever · August 20, 2014