Michael K. Williams: actor, proud New Yorker and most importantly, activist

Beloved actor and activist Micheal K. Williams passed away on Sept. 6th, at the age of 54

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Michael K. Williams was a masterful actor who put his entire being into his characters.Throughout his career, Williams portrayed a wide range of roles that constantly tugged out our heart strings. From the sets of our favorite shows to the organization he helped to co-found, he will be dearly missed. He has left a lasting impression on Hollywood and New York. While he became famous for his acting, the New York native was so much more than the roles he played.

Williams was laid to rest on Sept. 14 after being found dead in his Brooklyn apartment on Sept. 6. Since the announcement, millions of posts have populated social media regarding the characters he played but most importantly, the impact he had on his Brooklyn community. “He (Williams) made sure to always let us know that it doesn’t matter the color of your skin, you’re still a person,” said Marianne B., a youth social justice advocate who worked with Williams.

Born and raised in Flatbush Gardens (formally Vanderveer Estates housing complex), Williams originally worked as a backup dancer for popular singers such as George Michael and Madonna. Williams’ jump to the film industry came as a result of a fight on his 25th birthday. In an NPR interview, he explained that after celebrating in Queens, NY someone slashed him with a razor blade outside a club which resulted in the famous scar that ran across his face. As a result, he was cast in his first film, “Bullet” by hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur because he looked “thugged out enough to play his younger brother.”

As his fame and recognition grew, he still remained the down-to-earth person that many of his neighbors knew him to be. “People were just like, ‘Is that him?’ We were shocked to see him walking around without security guards. But he was a regular guy,” Williams’ former neighbor said to the New York Times.

While Williams was known for playing tough characters such as Omar from “The Wire,” Chalky White from “Boardwalk Empire” and most recently, Montrose Freeman from “Lovecraft Country,” his personality was the exact opposite. Williams said he initially couldn’t relate to characters like Omar so he based these personalities off of members in his community. “When he didn’t quite know how to handle a shotgun, he and a local drug dealer stood on the roof of one building and shot into a steel door,” said a reporter in a 2017 New York Times interview.

Williams was more than a scar and “tough exterior.” He loved to dance and give back to his community in any way possible. “The way a lot of us from the neighborhood see it, Mike is like the prophet of the projects,” said Williams neighbor, Darrel Wilds in a New York Times interview. “He’s representing the people of this neighborhood to the world.”

From raising money to help youth in the community get summer jobs, throwing block parties to get people vaccinated and register to vote to taking the cast of “When They See Us” to Coney Island -- Michael K. Williams loved to help in any and every capacity.

Many have expressed their favorite memories of Williams were witnessing his infectious energy. “It’s hard to pick a favorite memory of Mike but, one but my favorite aspect of the work we did was when we would host the events and he showed up with the most insane energy. People couldn’t believe that someone like him came back,” said Dana Rachlin.

In July of 2018, Williams along with Dana Rachlin and six other co-founders created We Build The Block. This organization was created to change community narratives by getting younger generations politically engaged. “We wanted to bring exciting events to places that are often forgotten about and portrayed as bad,” said Rachlin. “The only path forward is to make sure people from the community are included. That’s how you create institutional change. Everyone can be used because everyone is a resource and has value.”

Williams continuously dedicated his resources and time to ensure the youth of his community would be successful and aspire to dream big. Marianne B. is just one of the lives that Williams, or as many refer to him as “Uncle Mike,” touched. “If I could put the impact Uncle Mike had on me in 3 words, it would be ‘don’t give up.’ People don’t understand the importance of building people up in Black and Brown communities and he constantly made sure to let us know how special we were.”

In an interview with Politico, Williams expressed how his love for activism stems from his love for his community. “I’m not a politician. I’m a New Yorker, born and bred, and I’m a grown ass man, excuse my language, and it’s time to make my voice and my platform matter for something,” he said. He wanted to reach communities not only in the New York area but also Baltimore, Atlanta, Los Angeles and other cities across the country. Not only did Williams focus on voting rights, but he also fought for criminal justice reform, the arts, gun reform, the innocence project and food insecurity.

Williams impacted so many people with his energy, advocacy and caring nature. “I wish everyone knew how badly he wanted to heal himself and the community. He loved to make people feel special and would go out of his way to tell people he loved him,” Rachlin said. “He loved to uplift Black people and especially dark skin Black people. He would make a point to reaffirm the beauty in Black women. He just really wanted to heal the world with the love, care and empathy he had for others.”

Last Sunday, Kerry Washington gave a moving speech at the Emmy Awards -- Williams was nominated for outstanding supporting actor in a drama role. Washington tearfully expressed his impact saying, “Your excellence, your artistry will endure. We love you.” The city of Baltimore, which the popular show “The Wire” was based off, honored Williams in their own way. The Baltimore Ravens played the infamous Omar whistle at Sunday’s game.

Williams will truly be missed but those close to him are making sure his memory and message lives on. Those who worked with him or interviewed him over the years have shared their stories so others could get a deeper understanding of who Micheal K. Williams was. “He really had such a great impact on my life,” Marianne B. said. “He will never be forgotten and if I could speak to him one last time I would simply say thank you for believing in me when others didn’t.” We Build The Block is planning a public memorial and youth who worked like him such as Marianne B. are planning their own youtube memorial. " Mike believed in me when I didn’t. He was always supportive, positive and reassuring and I am so grateful that I knew him,” said Rachlin.

In a 2011 Hollywood Reporter interview, Williams expressed what he wanted his legacy to be -- most would say, he lived up to his expectations: “Man, I just want people to remember me as one cool-ass dude, you know? Someone who cared. And I would never want anybody to say, ‘Oh, he forgot where he came from.”