Grey’s Anatomy star Jesse Williams received a standing ovation Sunday night at the BET Awards while delivering a passionate speech about racial justice and white appropriation of black culture as he accepted the evening’s Humanitarian Award for his work on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“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! — ghetto-izing and demeaning our creations and stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit,” Williams said during his acceptance speech Sunday night.
BET CEO Debra Lee presented the award to Williams, adding that it is “for his continued efforts and steadfast commitment to furthering social change.”
“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 added. “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.”
Williams, a prominent Black Lives Matter activist, went on to deliver a monologue dedicated to black people who’ve died at the hands of police over the last several years, invoking controversial cases including Cleveland’s Tamir Rice and Staten Island, New York’s Eric Garner.
“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.”
“Tell Rekia Boyd how it’s so much better to live in 2012 than 1612 or 1712. Tell that to Eric Garner, Sandra Bland,” he continued.
Williams said “this award 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. It’s kinda basic mathematics: the more we learn about who we are and how we got here the more we will mobilize.”
He later encouraged the actors and musicians in the crowd to do more than make money and buy expensive clothing.
“The thing is though, all of us here are getting money, that alone isn’t going to stop this,” Williams said. “Dedicating our lives to getting money just to give it right back to put 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?”
The Cabin in the Woods star ended his speech by scolding his critics.
“If you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do: sit down,” he said.
“Just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real. Thank you.”
Williams protested in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. The actor later said on CNN’s State of the Union, that “there’s a complete double standard and a complete different experience that a certain element of this country has the privilege of being treated like human beings, and the rest of us are not treated like human beings, period.”
Williams’ speech was so well-received that actor Samuel L. Jackson acknowledged it while accepting his own Lifetime Achievement Award a short time later.
“What Jesse said… I mean, Jesse’s the closest thing I’ve heard to a 1960s activist,” Jackson said. “That brother is right and he’s true and when you hear what he’s saying, make sure you vote and take eight more people to vote so we can fix this.”
See the complete winner’s list from the BET Awards here.
Follow Jerome Hudson on Twitter: @jeromeehudson