Jesse Williams' speech stole the BET Awards

Jesse Williams steals the show at BET Awards
Jesse Williams steals the show at BET Awards

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    Jesse Williams steals the show at BET Awards

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Jesse Williams steals the show at BET Awards 01:05

Story highlights

  • Williams is a former teacher
  • Justin Timberlake stirred controversy about the speech

(CNN)Actor Jesse Williams took to the BET Awards stage Sunday night as an honoree and left a hero.

The "Grey's Anatomy" star received the 2016 BET Humanitarian Award, and gave a powerful acceptance speech on race and this country. His words have been so thoroughly embraced that publications like Billboard are running it in its entirety.
Here's what you need to know about Williams:

    He's a long time activist

    There is a reason Williams has drawn comparisons to the legendary Harry Belafonte.
    Like Belafonte -- who honored Williams in a video that was shown when he received his award -- Williams has used his platform as a celebrity to bring attention to his activism.
    Williams was on the front lines of protests held in Ferguson, Missouri after the 2014 death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer.
    "This award is not for me," Williams said in his acceptance speech. "This is for the real organizers all over the country, the activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do."

    He's a former teacher

    Educating comes naturally to the Chicago native, who taught high school in Philadelphia before he became a star. He said he began as a substitute before diving into teaching history full time.
    "It was the most rewarding experience I've ever had, but it was exhausting, too," he told Parade magazine. "My students came from a high-poverty area with issues ranging from teen pregnancy to crime."

    Williams has always been political

    In his BET speech he thanked his parents (his mother is Swedish and his father is African American) "for teaching me to focus on comprehension over career, they made sure I learned what the schools are afraid to teach us."
    In 2015 he told Essence magazine that even before becoming active with the #BlackLivesMatters movement he had volunteered for both Obama campaigns.
    His work did not go over well with some "fans" Williams said.
    "On the second Obama campaign I lost like 30,000 followers and got so many death threats," he said. "I went from being their favorite character to a n***er, real quick."
    There was also some Twitter controversy over Williams BET speech -- but it wasn't really aimed at him.
    Singer Justin Timberlake actually had to apologize after he tweeted his admiration for the speech.
    Some Twitter users accused Timberlake of the appropriation of black culture Williams spoke about.
    Timberlake responded to one user saying "Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation. Bye."
    There was a backlash and the singer said he felt "misunderstood," and reiterated that he was speaking from a place of admiration for Williams.