Last year, June 26 to be exact, Jesse Williams was en route to the BET awards in Los Angeles to collect an award. He was given a day off from filming Jacob’s Ladder in Atlanta to attend. Having not thought about his acceptance speech until the day of the ceremony, he jotted down some notes on his iPhone on the plane on his way there. Critically, though, Jesse wasn’t there to pick up a best actor award or in fact anything to do with his trade, but instead to receive a much higher honour – the Humanitarian Award.
His hurriedly penned speech – a rousing commentary on the new civil rights movement, institutionalised racism and the appropriation of black culture – went instantly viral, clocking up thousands of tweets in mere minutes and becoming the talking point of the four-hour ceremony. The following day the actor, who previously was known to most as Dr Jackson on the long-running medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, was featured in mainstream press around the country, and thrust into the spotlight, so much so that he logged off the internet for ten days afterwards, not wanting to engage in the hype.
This wasn’t, however, a case of some soapbox speech or celebrity bandwagoning that many have bemoaned in the past. Jesse has been a campaigner for civil rights for most of his life. In fact, he wanted to be a civil rights attorney as a child long before acting came his way. In 2014, following the shooting of Michael Brown, he headed to Ferguson to protest with the rest of the Black Lives Matter campaigners.
“I dedicated my life to doing [civil rights activism] anyway and now I’ve just added another job to that, which is being on television and in films,” Jesse says over the phone from LA, during his lunch break on the set of Grey’s Anatomy. “I didn’t wake up one day and think, ‘Hey, I’ve got this platform now, what can I do with it?’ I was already doing it, and then I got a platform.
“It actually started for me in childhood, being poor and black in 80s Chicago, which didn’t allow you to have blinders on,” he says. “My parents were politically active, and made sure to always speak to me about a general sense of self-respect and awareness, and an understanding of oppression, systematic discrimination and abuses. They wanted me to be prepared for how the world works, so that I wasn’t stunned when I was older. I saw police abusing people, beating the shit out of black people – this was gangland, crack-era 80s Chicago – and it let me know that the real world is harsh.”