Jesse Williams delivered a 2016 Letter From Birmingham Jail. You need to hear it. Now.


At last night’s BET Awards, Jesse Williams received the Humanitarian Award and gave what is sure to become known as one of the best acceptance speeches of all time.  Before he was even done, requests for the transcript rang out on Twitter. And now? Everyone is reporting and analyzing the speech.

Billboard. Entertainment Weekly. Global Grind. Huffington Post. Vh1. Everyone.

This is important. Especially coupled with the fact that in addition to airing on BET, this year’s BET Awards also aired live on Viacom’s other networks – MTV, VH1, Spike TV, Comedy Central and…. Nickelodeon. The audience for this speech isn’t just Black folks watching an awards show – it’s the world, or at the very least the country. And you know what? Our country needed to hear this.

One of my favorite pieces of protest literature is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From Birmingham Jail. He perfectly captured the impatient frustration with which we fight for freedom. The key elements of Dr. King’s letter are as follows:

A clear statement that everything is not okay:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

A frustrated admonishment for folks criticizing the movement but not what caused it:

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.  I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

And a reiteration of the urgency Black Americans feel:

For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.”

Why am I talking about Dr. King and his 1963 letter? Because last night Jesse Williams gave us his 2016 letter to the people.

Now let’s get to it.

Jesse Williams took a moment in which he was being awarded, and used it to further the movement. He wore all Black and made the focus the words. For that reason, I will be quoting the speech in its entirety – because Jesse chose his words intentionally.

Before we get into it, I just wanna say, I brought my parents out tonight.  I just want to thank them for being here. For teaching me to focus on comprehension over career. They made sure I learned what the schools were afraid to teach us. And also I wanna thank my amazing wife for changing my life.

Remember, this is airing on Nickelodeon. Kids who have been taught to defer to teachers and the school system as an infallible authority are hearing, possibly for the first time in their lives, that schools are afraid to teach certain things. We may never know the full impact this speech had, but I fully believe some kids heard that and are googling what they’re missing out on. Finally, in this intro he thanks his wife – a Black woman who looks like the many Black women I call sister, friend, mom, auntie, etc. She’s beautiful and Black. If you don’t get the importance of that, it’s okay. My Black sisters feel me.

Now, this award? This is not for me. 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 a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do. Alright?

Organizers across the country have been called thugs, outside agitators (a term Dr. King eye-rolled in his letter), criminals, and unnecessarily angry. Here, Jesse Williams takes a moment in which he was being spotlighted, and reflected that back with praise for those fighting in this movement. Like Dr. King’s letter, Jesse starts with a clear indication that everything is not okay, in fact we live in a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us. Jesse notes that it cannot stand… if we do.

That’s an important conditional statement. The system can and will stand if we do nothing. It is constantly being reinforced at the cost and detriment of Black lives. The system will stand. Unless…

It’s kind of basic mathematics.  See, the more we learn about who we are and how we got here the more we will mobilize.

Education is the key. And since Brother Williams already noted that formal education ain’t the end all be all, he’s talking about learning our history by any means necessary – do your googles.

Now this also, in particular, is for the Black women, in particular, who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you.

And the entire church said, “Amen”. In Beyoncé’s critically acclaimed film Lemonade, a piece of work about and for Black women, she includes a clip of a speech by Malcolm X:

“The most disrespected person in America is the Black Woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black Woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black Woman.”

These are facts and will not be up for debate.

Jesse Williams again gives the spotlight to those who are too often abused, ignored, and forgotten – Black women. We thank you.

Now, what we’ve been doing is been looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to de-escalate, disarm, and not kill white people everyday. So what’s gonna happen is we are gonna have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function in ours.

Now, I got more y’all.

Yesterday would have been young Tamir Rice’s 14th birthday. So I don’t wanna hear anymore about how far we’ve come when paid public servants can pull a drive-by on a 12-year-old playing alone in a park in broad daylight, killing him on television, and then going home to make a sandwich.

Tell Rekiya Boyd how it’s so much better to live in 2012 than it is to live in 1612 or 1712. Tell that to Eric Garner. Tell that to Sandra Bland. Tell that to Dorian Hunt.

Jesse Williams makes it plain:

  1. The numbers, the data, shows that police know how to not kill people. They just choose to kill Black people. Again, this is not up for debate.
  2. He said white people. No listener, writer, journalist, talking head,  or otherwise can claim this speech is for everyone.  We are not all the same, Justin Timberlake. Some of us are targeted and killed by police. Some of y’all are not.
  3. The time for waiting is over. Black and white people a like need to stop saying we’ve come so far, and 2016 is a great time to be alive. It’s not. 12 year olds are shot and killed by police with no punishment. Black folks can get choked out on video and still have no posthumous justice.

We don’t want to hear any more that we should be happy with the progress we have seen. This justice check is already past due.

Now the thing is, though. All of us in here getting money? That alone isn’t gonna stop this, alright?

Now, dedicating our lives? Dedicating our lives to getting money just to give it right back for someone’s brand on our body when we spent entries praying with brands on our bodies, and now we pray to get paid, for bands on our bodies?

There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of.  There has been no job we haven’t done.  There has been no tax they haven’t levied against us. And we’ve paid them all. But freedom is somehow always conditional here.

“You’re free” they keep telling us but she would’ve been alive if she hadn’t acted so… free.

Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter. But you know what though? The hereafter is a hustle.

We want it now.

This myth Black folks have bought into that individual success is our job, because we can’t all be on the front lines? Nah. That’s gotta end. I’m happy for my lawyer and doctor and finance friends but that’s not how this works. Getting money is not how we fight back. It’s dope. But it’s not the key. Getting money just to buy brand name stuff is a swindle, not the solution.

You’ve noticed Jesse’s repetition of the word “Now”. Trust that was purposeful. This is a speech about urgency. About now. About how we will no longer wait for freedom – we will take it.

And let’s get a couple thing straight. Just a little side note: The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job, alright?  Stop with that.

Jesse just heats up from here. This is the best speech I’ve heard in a long time. This is a speech that needs to be read, watched, heard, and digested all across America.

It is not our duty as Black Americans to make comfortable, the bystanders who are complicit in our oppression. Nah. We are not here to coddle, comfort, or console your white guilt or your feelings of being misunderstood. Take that centering of bystanders elsewhere.

And then Jesse just pulls out the chopper on this:

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 for those who do.

Sit down.


If you talk about how annoying it is for organizers to disrupt innocent lives by protesting in malls, marching on streets, and otherwise sticking to the “no justice, no peace” motto, you damn sure better have a strong opinion on what sparked the protest.

And if you don’t care about this movement for freedom and equal rights, you BETTER NOT fix your mouth or your twitter fingers to tell us how to do it.  You can sit down and shut up. Thanks.

 We 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.

The thing is though. The thing is that just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.

While Black Americans smother in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society, this country has been thriving. Jesse Williams specifically and explicitly calls out whiteness.

For every twitter troll who faux-genuinely asks “omg what even is whiteness?” pay attention:

Whiteness is an invention.

Whiteness is an invention  that uses and abuses Black people.

Whiteness labels every part of Blackness inferior, ghetto, and amoral, then steals the exact same thing and profits.

Whiteness is Justin Bieber going through his “black phase”. Or Miley Cyrus trying to be ‘ratchet’. It’s companies like McDonald’s and Verizon using Black music, slang, and culture, to sell products all the while police use those same things to target and kill Black people. Music too loud? Whiteness will shoot you for that.

Whiteness is bright colored hair being rebellious or funky on white people, and ghetto and ratchet on Black folks.

And we’re fed up with insidious whiteness. We’re the fight back generation. Pusha T said “I ain’t got no march in me. I can’t turn the other cheek. While they testing y’all patience, they just testing my reach.” And I concur.  Our fight for freedom isn’t just for legal rights and political representation – it’s for the freedom to be Black. We won’t let them gentrify our genius.  We won’t let them stifle our swag. We won’t let them co-opt our culture.

We want freedom. And we want it now.

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