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Jesse Williams hasn’t only accepted the baton, he’s running with it

The star is following Harry Belafonte’s lead on Hollywood social activism

Jesse Williams left no stone unturned during his acceptance speech for the Humanitarian of the Year Award at Sunday night’s BET Awards ceremony. For many, Williams’ speech put the cherry on top of what is already an impressive resume of social activism.

He called out those who do nothing to empower and enfranchise black people yet critique the movements, folks who appropriate black people’s culture (cc: Justin Timberlake), and refused to stop using the platform Grey’s Anatomy has given him.

“The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job, all right? Stop with all that,” Williams said during his speech. “If you have a critique for the resistance — for our resistance — then you’d better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest … If you have no interest in equal rights for black people, then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.

“We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo. And we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment, like oil, black gold. Ghettoizing and demeaning our creations, then stealing them, gentrifying our genius, and then trying us on like costumes, before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.”

Williams is the youngest member of the board of directors of the Advancement Project, a civil rights and advocacy group. He was also on the front lines during the protest of Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.

The 34-year-old has been compared with singer and activist Harry Belafonte, who also sits on the Advancement Project board. The Undefeated’s own Soraya Nadia McDonald wrote about the link between the two men two years ago while she was with The Washington Post.

Belafonte was close friends with Martin Luther King Jr., and bailed King and other protesters out of the Birmingham City Jail. He was also an organizer of the March on Washington, a financial supporter of the Freedom Riders and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and a vocal political activist.

The pair was featured in EBONY magazine’s 70th anniversary edition, along with a photo showing Williams taking a baton from Belafonte and passing it off to singer and actress Zendaya. The photo resurfaced again following Williams’ speech.

While a good portion of Williams’ speech covered those who disenfranchise the black community, it also shed light on folks who don’t use their star power to bring awareness and attention to the ills still facing people of color today.

Williams’ speech and call to action were certainly reminiscent of Belafonte’s past work, and simultaneously reflected the kind of activism Belafonte has said he wants to see from young, black celebrities.

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.