Jesse Williams lit up the BET audience and Twittersphere when he delivered an impassioned speech on civil rights, police brutality and white appropriation of black culture while receiving the Humanitarian Award during Sunday night's telecast of the BET Awards.
His nearly five-minute speech was the highlight of a night filled with tributes to Prince and Muhammad Ali, performances by Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar, and numerous political statements against Donald Trump. And it has brought the 34-year-old actor, best known for his role as Dr. Jackson Avery on "Grey’s Anatomy," a bigger spotlight than he had before.
If you're only acquainted with Williams from "Grey's Anatomy," here are five more things you might want to know:
1. He's Played a Big Role in the Black Lives Matter Movement
Williams earned the Humanitarian Award as a champion of civil rights. When he's not on the set of "Grey's," he uses the spotlight to raise issues of racial and social justice. He produced and starred in the documentary, "Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement," which premiered last month on BET. He's also one of the producers of The Question Bridge, a multimedia project for "black men of all ages and backgrounds to ask and respond to questions about life in America," according to its website. He also serves on the board of directors of the Advancement Project, a multiracial civil rights organization, and works with Sankofa, an organization dedicated to ending racial injustice.
2. He Knows His History
After graduating from Temple University with a double major in African American Studies and Film and Media Arts, Williams followed his parents' footsteps and taught high school English, American Studies and African Studies in the Philadelphia public school system for six years. "I've always been obsessed with history and taught history," he told Essence magazine in February 2015.
3. Making the Switch to Acting
Instead of telling stories from history, Williams decided he wanted to be part of the storytelling process. So in 2005, he started studying acting and the following year earned his first role in an episode of "Law & Order." In 2008, he made his film debut in "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2" and the year after that was cast in "Grey's Anatomy."
"I thought there are ways that we could tell stories that could have a lot of value in communities that are constantly being told that they've come from nothing," he told Essence last year. "I decided to participate in the storytelling process and learned that you can actually do a lot of good on camera, by really giving voice to characters and story lines."
4. He's Biracial
At the start of his speech, Williams thanked his parents, Johanna Chase, a professional potter, and Reginald Williams. His mother is Swedish, while his father is African American, with some Seminole, originally from Georgia. Both worked in the public school system and were in the audience Sunday night.
Being biracial has given the blue-eyed star access to both sides of the race spectrum. He told The Guardian last October, "I have access to rooms and information. I am white and I am also black. I am invisible man in a lot of these scenarios,” Williams said, referring to the Ralph Ellison classic. “I know how white people talk about black people. I know how black people talk about white folks. I know I am there and everyone speaks honestly around me."
5. He's Married
During his speech, Williams also thanked his "amazing wife for changing my life." The actor and activist met wife Aryn Drake-Lee when he was a teacher and told USA Today in 2010 that "she’s been with me through all different facets of my career." Drake-Lee is a real estate broker who started her career while attending Barnard College in New York City and currently works for the luxury real estate firm Brown Harris Stevens. Williams appreciates his wife's independence, telling Essence last year, "I don't gain strength from the weakness of others. I need to be able to learn from my partner. That's what keeps us alive. We have mutual respect for each other and we can help each other where we need it."
The couple are also parents to two children, Sadie, born in December 2013, and Maceo, born last August.