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Norman Lear defends Jesse Williams' BET Awards speech

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Alberto E. Rodriguez/WireImage; Cindy Ord/Getty Images

TV icon Norman Lear is throwing his full support behind Jesse Williams, whose impassioned BET Awards speech about race in America has since spurred an online petition demanding that he be fired from his long-running gig on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy.

“I’ve seen and attended a ton of awards shows in my time, and no one has ever put his soul and his ass on the line so fully and so truthfully as Jesse Williams did at the BET Awards last week,” Lear told IndieWire in a statement published Tuesday. “Wither thou goest, Mr. Williams, I will follow.”

Williams, who’s been on Grey’s since 2009 and is now a member of the main cast, delivered the speech when he accepted the Humanitarian Award at the June 26 show. He dedicated the award to “the real organizers all over the country,” going on to address racial issues, social justice, and cultural appropriation.

A Change.org user later created an online petition calling for ABC to fire Williams, characterizing his politically-minded speech as “racist.” The petition has since racked up over 19,000 signatures as of Wednesday morning. Meanwhile, a counter petition has garnered more than 25,000 signatures.

Both Lear — a longtime activist — and Grey‘s creator Shonda Rhimes have publicly backed Williams, who will appear in their upcoming Epix program America Divided, a documentary series that will explore economic, social, and political inequalities.

“Um, people? Boo don’t need a petition. #shondalandrules,” Rhimes wrote on Twitter Monday.

Williams, who has a long history in activism, has personally addressed the petition. On Wednesday, he responded to a report stating that the petition had quadrupled in signatures. “Because you keep incessantly promoting their cowardly intolerance! Not a single sane sentence in their claim. NotOne,” he tweeted.

On Sunday, he tweeted, “Do not promote empty people & their tantrums. Pure clickbait to gain followers, attention & money, for themselves, not you. Never you.”

“Words are only as good as the response to those words,” Williams told PEOPLE last week. “But I’d like to think that I give people a sense that they are not alone.”

Watch Williams’ full speech below.