“Grey's Anatomy” star Jesse Williams dominated the BET Awards Sunday night with an acceptance speech that touched on just about every contentious social issue currently facing the black community — from family breakdown and poverty to police brutality to the uniquely American concept of “whiteness.”
BET CEO Debra Lee presented Williams, 34, with the network’s Humanitarian Award “for his continued efforts and steadfast commitment to furthering social change.”
Williams began by thanking BET, his wife and his parents “for teaching me to focus on comprehension over career. They made sure I learned what the schools are afraid to teach us."
“This award is not for me,” he said. “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."
“This award is also for the black women, in particular who have spent their lives nurturing everyone before themselves — we can and will do better for you," he continued.
Williams then moved on to the subject of police brutality against the black community, a key issue raised by the Black Lives Matter movement.
“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," he said. "So what’s going to happen is we’re going to have equal rights and justice in our own country, or we will restructure their function and ours."
That comment earned the actor a standing ovation from the packed crowd at Los Angeles' Microsoft Theater.
“I got more, y’all," he went on. "Yesterday would have been young Tamir Rice’s 14th birthday, 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."
He also had a few things to say about the Black Lives Matter movement's critics:
If you have a critique for our resistance, then you’d 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, 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, just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real. Thank you.
Williams received a standing ovation for his speech. Later in the show, Hollywood veteran Samuel L. Jackson said he hadn't heard a speech like it since the 1960s.
Watch the full speech:
Billboard reported that, in October 2014, Williams traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, to join demonstrators who protesting the shooting of Michael Brown, who was killed by Ferguson police officers. He was also executive produced and starred in “Stay Woke,” a BET documentary about the Black Lives Matter social justice movement.
Williams also met with President Obama earlier this year to discuss his activist work.