Jesse Williams addresses Black Lives Matter at BET Awards

Sunday night's BET Awards evolved from a celebration of black performers to a stirring call to action from actor and activist Jesse Williams.

'He really spoke on the issues that we’ve been speaking about for years,' Toronto activist says

Actor Jesse Williams accepts the Humanitarian Award during the 2016 BET Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday. (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)

Sunday night's BET Awards evolved from a celebration of black performers to a stirring call to action from actor and activist Jesse Williams. 

Opening the show was a surprise appearance by Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar with their song Freedom. The electrifying performance set the tone for the evening, which included tributes to Prince and Muhammad Ali. 

Williams, who currently plays Dr. Jackson Avery on ABC's Grey's Anatomy, received the 2016 BET Humanitarian Award. The actor is an ardent civil rights activist who produced and starred in the BET documentary Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement. 

After thanking his family, Williams dedicated the award to "the real organizers all over the country … that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do."

He then gave a shout-out to black women, "who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you."

The actor continued by denouncing police brutality, systemic racism and the commercialization of black culture.

The nearly five-minute long speech, which prompted standing ovations from the audience, included rebuttal of the idea that things are getting better for black Americans. Williams pointed to Tamir Rice and other recent victims of police killings as evidence to the contrary. 

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.- Jesse Williams

"Yesterday would have been young Tamir Rice's 14th birthday," Williams said. "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."

Comedian Chris Rock echoed similar sentiments in 2014 during a conversation with New York magazine's Frank Rich. "When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it's all nonsense," Rock said. "There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they're not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before."

Actor Jesse Williams accepts the Humanitarian Award during the 2016 BET Awards in Los Angeles. June 26, 2016. (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)

Williams also had words for critics of the tactics employed by the Black Lives Matter movement. "If you have no interest in equal rights for black people, then do not make suggestions to those that do," Williams said. "Sit down."

Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder Pascale Diverlus watched the awards show last night and told CBC News she was excited to see the issues she's been fighting for discussed on a major platform.

"He really spoke on the issues that we've been speaking about for years," Diverlus said.

Black Lives Matter Toronto has called out the city's police for the deaths of Andrew Loku, Jermaine Carby and what it says are countless other black victims of police brutality. 

"Often in the mainstream, we don't get recognized," Diverlus said. "It's amazing to see how you can really have a platform and shed light on the issues that are plaguing our community, but also encourage people to mobilize. It was a message to people across the world."

About the Author

Avneet Dhillon

Avneet Dhillon is a multi-platform journalist based in Toronto. She is currently working as a social editor/presenter for CBC News.

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