When he’s not wearing scrubs as Jackson Avery on Grey’s Anatomy, Jesse Williams has become a prominent voice of the Black Lives Matter movement. From protesting in Ferguson, Missouri, to writing articles for CNN and The Huffington Post, Williams’ activism is the reason he’s the recipient of the BET Awards’ 2016 Humanitarian Award.
Williams, who was a history teacher before he started acting, is a member of the board of directors at both The Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization, and Sankofa, a social justice organization founded by Harry Belafonte that works to unite artists and grassroot partners to elevate the voices of the disenfranchised. Williams is also an executive producer of Question Bridge: Black Males, a transmedia project that works to unite black males from different backgrounds in order to redefine black male identity in America.
And upon receiving the Humanitarian Award, Williams took to the stage, where he thanked both his parents and his wife before dedicating his award to “the real organizers all over the country,” whom he said are realizing that “a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do.”
Williams went on to say, “The more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize,” before dedicating his award in particular to black women, “who have spent their lives dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you.”
Williams added: “We know that police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm, and not kill white people every day, 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.”
Bringing up the fact that Saturday would’ve been Tamir Rice’s 14th birthday, Williams said, “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 day light, killing him on television, and then going home to make a sandwich.”
Speaking to a standing ovation from the crowd, Williams also referenced Sandra Bland and Eric Garner. He continued: “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 has 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.'”
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He added: “Freedom is always coming in the hereafter. But, you know what, the hereafter is a hustle. We want it now.”
Rounding out his powerful speech, Williams finished by saying, “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 strained fruit. The thing is though… the thing is that just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”
Watch the full speech below.