Jesse Williams: Much More Than An Actor

jesse-williams-baltimore-riots-twitter-reactionWhen describing his character on Grey’s Anatomy, actor and activist Jesse Williams summed it up with, “He is very confident and likes to say what is on his mind.” Certainly his character, Jackson Avery, had no choice but to showcase his confidence; he joined the already-cohesive medical staff late in season six. Interestingly, some may say Williams is similar in his real life, off the set. Compared to Harry Belafonte for his outspokenness and candidness about civil rights issues, Jesse Williams is undoubtedly one of today’s notable civil rights activists. He is the youngest member of the board of directors at The Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy group.

Jesse is also the executive producer of Question Bridge: Black Males, a multifaceted media project and website focused on the black male identity and the diversity within the demographic. He has written race-related articles for news stations such as CNN and has been a guest on newsroom talk shows like on Wolf Blitzer’s The Situation Room. But it seems like his voice reaches the most people through social media. For those who knew Jesse Williams before the half black and half white actor rose to fame, his active part in activism comes as no surprise.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 28: (L-R) Jessie Williams, Aryn Drakelee-Williams and Frank Lee attend The Mistake Room 2015 Biennial Gala at CAA on March 28, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Donato Sardella/Getty Images for The Mistake Room)

Jesse Williams and Wife Ann (Photo by Donato Sardella/Getty Images for The Mistake Room)

Williams received two Bachelor’s Degrees from Temple University: one for African American Studies and one for Film & Media Arts. It’s apparent that both degrees helped shape Williams into the man he is today. After graduating, he taught high school African Studies, African American Studies, and English. In a 2013 interview with BET regarding his part in a movie about civil rights, Williams admitted, “I think one of the most fascinating things that I took in was, as somebody who studied the civil rights movement a significant amount in their upbringing, and taught it in high school,  I was pretty familiar with the chunky material. But in my study of Reverend James Lawson, who I play, and spent time with….Oftentimes people trivialize that there was a self-defense movement, there was a Malcolm X perspective, there was a Black Panther perspective versus a non-violent Southern perspective. And it’s more complex than that of course, and I think it was interesting about Reverend Lawson’s perspective and his implementations of Ghandi’s practices from his experiences in India, which was the long term strategy of non-violence, of love force or what they called Satyagraha.”

After six years of teaching, Williams, who had been studying acting all the while, moved onto his acting career. His first television role was for an episode of Law and Order in 2006. He appeared in a few other shows before hitting the big screen with his first movie role in The Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants 2. Williams would go on to act in other films including the high-grossing The Butler. But currently, Williams is most famous for his role in the hugely popular, Grey’s Anatomy. And with this fame, Jesse Williams has a platform for activism.
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It seems like for the past three years, the media has broadcast story after story of unarmed African Americans losing their life to “law enforcement” : so often that it has become a trend in the media (we all know it’s always been happening, but now it’s all over the television, newspapers, and blogs). Of course after hearing about such stories, Williams couldn’t sit idle. The Trayvon Martin case of 2012, in which an un-armed Martin, 17, was shot to death by George Zimmerman, didn’t actually involve a police officer, but it involved Zimmerman taking the “law” into his own hands (even when advised not to do so by the actual police). Jesse Willliams explained, “I hope the Trayvon case will not go in the way of a short term catalyst. I think that it needs to be contextualized. Trayvon is one of several. There’s Oscar Grant. There’s Jordan Davis. There’s a lot of young black men getting gunned down because people felt that they were threatened – unarmed boys who were supposedly threats because being a black man is “actually” some kind of aggression within itself.”

Live on CNN, Jesse Williams revealed his frustration with how the media portrayed the unarmed Michael Brown, 18, shot to death by “police officer” Daren Wilson in 2014. “I’ve never seen a white body left in the street for four hours in the sweltering heat. The cop doesn’t call in the shooting. The body isn’t put in an ambulance. It’s shuttled away in some shady, unmarked SUV. There is a lot of bizarre  behavior going on, and that is the story. That’s where we need journalism. That’s where we need that element of our society to kick in to gear and not just play a loop of what the kid may have done in a convenience store…This idea that because he stole a handful of cheap cigars, what’s that worth five bucks? I’ve lived in the white suburbs of this country for a long time. I know plenty of white kids who steal stuff from the convenience store. This idea that every time a black person does something, they automatically become a thug worthy of their own death. We don’t own drug crimes. We’re not the only ones who sell and do drugs all the time. We’re not the only ones who steal. We’re not the only ones who talk crazy to cops. There’s a complete double standard and different experience that a certain element of this country has the privelage of. They’re treated like human beings. And others aren’t.” In October of the same year, Williams joined thousands in Ferguson, Missouri to protest the shooting of Michael Brown.

Williams has used his Twitter platform, in which he has over one million followers, to discuss social injustices. Most recently he has tweeted about the Sandra Bland case, in which Bland was unlawfully jailed, only to be…