At Sunday’s BET Awards, megastar Beyoncé performed on a bed of water, backlit by dancing flames, crying out for “Freedom” in a dazzling spectacle. But it was an actor on a long-running ABC drama who stole the nearly four-hour show — and he did it with an acceptance speech.
“Yesterday would have been young Tamir Rice’s 14th birthday,” Jesse Williams said, referencing the 2014 fatal police shooting of a Cleveland boy who had been playing with a toy gun. “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 and then going home to make a sandwich.”
For Williams — known to many as Dr. Jackson Avery on the medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” where his piercing blue eyes make him a perfect fit for the show’s roster of beautiful medical professionals — the impassioned remarks on police brutality and institutionalized racism may be heralded as a breakout moment. The speech instantly went viral and dominated social media well into the following day.
But the 34-year-old, who was accepting the Humanitarian Award, has been a consistent presence in the Black Lives Matter movement since its beginning.
Williams doesn’t just share his sharp opinions on Twitter and Tumblr. He has what people on social media might call “receipts” — proof of his credibility. He sits on the board of directors for the Advancement Project, a nonprofit founded by civil-rights attorneys, dedicated to racial justice issues. In May, he appeared in “Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement,” a documentary he executive-produced. And after the police shooting of an unarmed Michael Brown, Williams headed to Ferguson, as protests heightened in October 2014.
“He talked to people. He ran from the police when we got tear-gassed,” Johnetta Elzie, a prominent Black Lives Matter activist, told The Washington Post. “He’s been there, and I can’t say that for many other celebrities who claim to be involved in the movement.”
Elzie, who chatted with Williams over the weekend (“about work stuff”), had no idea what he was going to say in his speech. “When he started, I just thought, ‘How perfect. How perfect a place — and audience — for him to hold up a mirror and flip over tables and strip away the sheet of respectability politics, calling people out,” she said.
Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project, calls Williams “a thought partner” for the organization, which advocates around issues such as the criminalization of young people of color, ending the school-to-prison pipeline and police reform and accountability.
“He has a real commitment to the liberation of black people,” Browne Dianis said. “He’s not the kind of person who is going to sit on the sidelines.”
This year, Williams headed to Flint, Mich., where he was involved with a benefit concert for those affected by the lead water crisis there.
Williams has a number of projects in the works that combine his art with his activism. In the spring, he announced that he would produce and star in a biopic of Harry Belafonte — the actor and civil rights activist to whom Williams has been compared. (Belafonte is also an Advancement Project board member.)
Williams will also appear as a correspondent in “America Divided,” a documentary series from Norman Lear and his “Grey’s Anatomy” boss Shonda Rhimes, slated to air on Epix this fall. Fittingly, Williams’s installment will focus on education.
On Sunday, Williams — who was unavailable for comment as of press time — used the BET stage to honor those killed by police: Rice, Eric Garner, Darrien Hunt, Rekia Boyd. He said their names. He spoke directly to black women, who often feel ignored in mainstream spaces, promising that “we can and will do better for you.”
“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,” Williams said. “Burying black people out of sight and out of mind, while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil — black gold.”
Earlier in the speech, the cameras flashed to Williams’s parents — his father is black and his mother is white — as he thanked them for “teaching me to focus on comprehension over career.”
His mother is a potter, and when he was growing up, both of his parents were activists. “I really connected to the social justice movement,” Williams told the Guardian in 2015. “Growing up in Chicago, that was a big part of the community that we were in and the people that were in our house.”
His family eventually moved from Chicago to suburban Massachusetts, and he attended a private Quaker high school in Rhode Island, where he became co-president of the school’s black student union. “It consisted of maybe 12 because it was a white private school,” he told the Guardian.
The difference between the “underserved community, over-crowded classrooms” and a suburban “healthy” school experience left an impression on him, he told Essence in 2015.
“I got a much better education and resources because of my Zip code,” he said. “I wanted to be part of the solution.”
After graduating from Temple University, he taught American, African and African American history at Philadelphia public charter schools.
He dabbled in acting during college, filming commercials in New York. He eventually moved to Brooklyn and worked at a law firm before getting back into professional acting, appearing on “Law and Order” and performing theater in the West Village.
“I was just going to do it for a little bit and see if it worked, and if not, I would go to law school or something else,” Williams said of acting in 2014 interview on “The View.” He has since appeared in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Brooklyn’s Finest” and “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2.” But “Grey’s Anatomy” became his breakout role.
The transition from teaching history to acting made sense, he has said.
“I’ve always been obsessed with history and taught history. I thought there are ways that we could tell stories that could have a lot of value in communities that are constantly being told that they’ve come from nothing,” he told Essence in 2015. “I decided to participate in the storytelling process and learned that you can actually do a lot of good on camera, by really giving voice to characters and story lines.”
But on Sunday night, Williams didn’t have to use a character or plot to cast a national spotlight on racism — just his own words.