Jesse Williams’s Essential History of Social Justice
In the wake of the ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ actor’s powerful BET Awards speech, we dig into his long, profound, and tireless history of working for social justice and equality.
Jesse Williams, with his piercing blue eyes and make-you-short-of-breath smile, always grabs attention, but never has he captured our gaze—and our minds, our hearts, and our passion—more than with his powerful acceptance speech at the BET Awards Sunday night, where he received the Humanitarian Award.
The Grey’s Anatomy actor was called a “tireless champion of change, and a voice for the voiceless,” by Debra Lee, chairwoman and CEO of BET, when she presented him with the award.
His speech that followed went viral immediately for the eloquence and candor with which he thanked the unsung heroes in the fight against systemic racism and the “black women who spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves,” saying, “we can and will do better for you.”
He honored the memory of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Darrien Hunt, and Rekia Boyd, and demanded that more be done to end police violence. He called for an end to the celebration and commodification of black culture that happens in tandem with the devaluation of black lives. “The thing is, though, the thing is that just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real,” he concluded.
It was an unprecedented dissemination of knowledge, call for action, and state of the union at an event like this, the immediate viral spread of which was deserved.
The value of a platform like an awards show is the megaphone and amplification it can give to a person like Williams, and the information he was giving. And it’s a byproduct of the very institutionalized marginalization that, as a white male reporter in my New York media newsroom, I was shamefully ignorant of Williams’s work outside of Grey’s Anatomy.
His BET Awards speech was the start of a much-needed education—moved and stirred by his words and also embarrassed by my blind spot for his work, I’ve spent most of the day researching his social justice initiatives, reading his profound statements on resonant issues, and basking in the humanitarian genius he received the BET trophy for on Sunday.
I’ve collected some of what I’ve learned about him and his initiatives here. It might not be nearly enough of a spotlight, or make up for my earlier White Guy in a Manhattan Office privileged ignorance. But I encourage you to read, and explore further on your own because, while there are undoubtedly many who already are familiar with his work, I’d suspect that I’m not alone in just learning about Dr. Jackson Avery’s long history of activism.
Currently, he sits on the board of directors of the Advancement Project, a civil rights think tank and advocacy group. Its focus is work on-the-ground to mobilize and organize communities of color and provide support in their struggles for racial and social justice, from protecting voter rights and marginalization through redistricting to working to end the school-to-prison pipeline. Williams is the youngest member of the organization’s board of directors.
In addition, he is an executive producer of Question Bridge: Black Males, a multi-hyphenate art-media-education project that creates a platform for black men from diverse backgrounds to represent, refine, discuss, debate, and explore black male identity.
Williams himself has been open and influential on that very matter, the black male identity. He is biracial, the son of a white mother of Swedish descent and an African American father.
He credits his parents with first instilling in him a passion and obligation to social justice, something that became all the more important when his family moved from Chicago to suburban Massachusetts where, as The Guardian writes, he “went from being one of the whitest kids in the area to being one of the darkest.” When he moved to Massachusetts, he became co-president of the school’s black student union.
Williams attended Temple University, majoring in African American Studies and Film and Media Arts. His first job out of school was as a public school teacher in Philadelphia, something he said was “the best thing I’ve ever done.”
He’s said in interviews that if acting doesn’t work out—or if, let’s say, Shonda Rhimes ever decides to kill his character off Grey’s Anatomy—he’d be a civil rights attorney, saying, “It’s what I love and what I care about. It’s why I wake up.”
When Quentin Tarantino released Django Unchained in 2013 and gave an interview saying “I am responsible for people talking about slavery in America in a way they have not in 30 years,” Williams penned a piece for CNN in response titled: “Django, Still Chained.”
He talked about his biracial experience growing up on both sides of segregated neighborhoods, often viewed as invisible when racial topics arose, and how he witnessed “candid dirt from both sides, and I studied it.”
“The conversation was almost always influenced by something people read or saw on a screen. Media portrayals greatly affect, if not entirely construct, how we interpret ‘otherness.’ People see what they are shown, and little less,” he wrote.
“If, like Tarantino, you show up with a megaphone and claim to be creating a real solution to a specific problem,” he continued, “I only ask that you not instead, construct something unnecessarily fake and then act like you’ve done us a favor.”
For The Huffington Post he wrote a piece based on his experience as a Philadelphia public school teacher, using it to discuss the staggering issue of children experiencing hunger. That was almost five years ago. His public activism has only intensified since. Just last month, Williams released a documentary he executive produced called Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement.
The film includes interviews with Black Lives Matter co-founders Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors, along with other leaders including DeRay McKesson, Michaela Angela Davis, and Williams himself.
“Black Lives Matter is, in many ways, in its adolescence,” he told The Huffington Post in an interview. “It’s an ongoing movement, so we wanted to be sure that, as we catalog its origin story and machination, we also wanted to be sure we do not treat it as a fixed, finite, closed circle. We want to look back without being conclusive.”
Perhaps the simplest example of Williams’s social justice work and power is his social media presence. He’s scoffed at the idea of “hashtag activism,” telling The Huffington Post, “Miss me with that. I’ve yet to hear an intelligent reason or criticism of using your voice on social media.”
He continued: “We’re in the streets, we’re at the halls of power, we’re impacting policy directly, we’re changing the narrative and the way presidential candidates have to come correct in order to even show up in our town. And then we’re happening to report it online because those are the tools at our disposal. Ain’t nothing changed but the technology…the activism is what’s happening.”
Back in 2014, Williams’s activism began making the cable news circuit when he joined the rallies and marches in the St. Louis area as part of Ferguson October.
Asked why he was there, he told Democracy Now: “Because I couldn’t get here sooner, because I had to work, but got here as soon as I possibly could. I think you need to—we need to stand up and show some support for an incredible weekend of resistance, people coming from all over the country to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ and we’re not going to, you know, be strung out in isolation anymore; recommit ourselves to finding unity, finding common ground, finding what’s common to all of us. And that is just a basic, really, desire to be able to survive and not be killed with impunity, to have those who’ve taken an oath serve and protect us to, on occasion, serve and protect us, to be held accountable for our actions.”
A year later, in October 2015, he appeared on a panel at The New Yorker festival alongside Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jelani Cobb, Claudia Rankine, Danai Gurira, and David Simon, titled “The Fire This Time: Black in America.”
It was a sprawling, searing conversation that covered absolution and forgiveness in the context of black and white America, among many other talking points. “The goal is: ‘Can we be done with this already please?’” he said. “Look at how quickly we went to post-racial. Obama just got elected so we’re done right? We’re done. Can we take the signs down? Can it be over please?”
Riffing on Ta-Nehisi Coates, who argued that making the goal the arrests and charging of the officers for excessive violence emphasizes the individual rather than the institutional problems, Williams said, “You’re playing whack-a-mole with the symptoms and not the core thing. Police are American citizens, they were born here, they were raised here and programmed here, as we all are. You go to public school and you spend 12 years learning white supremacy.”
The truth is that we could fill out about a dozen pieces on The Daily Beast cutting and pasting some of his most insightful, provocative, and intelligent comments on race, injustice, and the state of our culture right now. And maybe we should, or should have this whole time. It’s unfortunate that it takes a viral video to bring attention to a thought leader whose ideas and work deserves not just attention, but absorption and action.
In the meantime, here is the transcript to his speech in full, for it bears reading again:
“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.”