“The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job, all right, stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest in equal rights for Black people then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.”
– Jesse Williams
African-American performing arts celebrities were a driving force behind the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Lena Horne, who was Blacklisted in the 1950s for her activism and political views, performed in the South at rallies for civil rights, participated in the 1963 March on Washington, and supported the work of the National Council for Negro Women. Harry Belafonte, a confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr., provided financial backing for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Council and emerged as one of the strongest voices of the 20th-Century Civil Rights Movement. Sidney Poitier has been called “the film industry’s living embodiment of the progress generated by the Civil Rights Movement.”
Now, a new generation of activist artists is rising to take their place. Chief among them is Jesse Williams, whose powerful acceptance speech at the BET Awards has created a firestorm.
Williams has been attacked for his moving condemnation of racially-motivated police violence, evoking the names of Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and Darrien Hunt. Sadly, just days later, two more names have been added to the list: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
At just 36 years of age, Williams has become a leading voice of the 21st Century civil rights and social justice movement. He is the youngest member of the board of directors at The Advancement Project, a civil rights think tank and advocacy group. This spring, he released the acclaimed documentary Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement. Williams also is the executive producer of the website Question Bridge, “an innovative transmedia project that facilitates a dialogue between a critical mass of Black men from diverse and contending backgrounds and creates a platform for them to represent and redefine Black male identity in America.”
In the turbulent days after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Williams was a critical voice of protest. He was among the stars who chose to boycott the 2016 Oscars, which for two years running included no actors of color among the nominees. He and other celebrities instead participated in a fundraiser for the victims of lead poisoning in the water supply in Flint, Michigan.
Williams’ commitment to social justice is rooted in part in his background as a schoolteacher in struggling low-income neighborhoods in Philadelphia. He follows in the footsteps of his parents, both of whom have worked as public school teachers In response to a petition urging executive producer and showrunner Shonda Rimes to fire Williams from the cast of Gray’s Anatomy, Rimes tweeted: “Um, people? Boo don’t need a petition. #shondalandrules.” We are pleased to live by the rules of ShondaLand, where creative and committed artists of color are empowered to lift up one another and change the world for the better.
Marc H. Morial is the Executive Director of the National Urban League.