Viola Davis was tasked with presenting the award, and the celebrated actress introduced Perry by highlighting the many charitable efforts that earned Perry the prestigious honor.
"My great friend, filmmaker, and philanthropist, Tyler Perry, personifies empathy," Davis shared. "Tyler knows what it is to be hungry, to be without a home, to feel unsafe and uncertain. So when he buys groceries for 1,000 of his neighbors, supports a women's shelter, or quietly pays tuition for a hard-working student, Tyler is coming from a place of shared experience."
The sweet introduction was accompanied by a short video package that featured Whoopi Goldberg, and Perry took the stage after to share a formative memory.
"When I set out to help someone, I'm not trying to do anything other than meet somebody at their humanity," Perry said, before recalling an occasion, around 17 years ago, when he was walking to his car outside a studio and he came across a homeless women who asked if he might have any extra shoes to gift her.
Tyler Perry accepts Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award "I refuse to hate someone because they are Mexican or because they are Black or white or LBGTQ. I refuse to hate someone because they are a police officer. I refuse to hate someone because they are Asian." pic.twitter.com/FjpTaYhKUu
"It stopped me cold, because I remember being homeless, and I had one pair of shoes, they were bent over at the heels. So I was like, 'Yeah,'" Perry said, explaining how he took her into the studio and went to the production's wardrobe department to find her a pair of shoes she could wear. "The whole time, she's finally looking down. She finally looks up, and she has tears in her eyes."
"She said, 'Thank you, Jesus. My feet are off the ground,'" he continued. "In that moment, I just recall her saying to me, 'I thought you would hate me for asking.' I go, 'How can I hate you, when I used to be you? How can I hate you when I had a mother who grew up in the Jim Crow south, in Louisiana?'"
Perry recalled how difficult her mother's life had been living in frightening times, and she grew up to teach her son "to refuse hate and blanket judgment."
Perry went on to decry hate in all its forms, and dedicated the award to "anyone who wants to meet me in the middle and refuse hate."
Speaking with reporters after the show, Perry reflected on his mother's legacy and how he carries on her torch and her teachings.
"I can feel her in the moment every time I'm up there," he shared. "I'm carrying her with me, and all she went through and all we went through together."
As for his message of unity, Perry said he was inspired by what he sees as a need for mutual understanding, because of "where we are [as a] country."
"Everybody's grabbed a corner and a color and nobody wants to come to the middle to have a conversation," Perry shared. "Everybody is polarized and it's in the middle where things change. So I'm hoping that that inspires people to meet us in the middle so that we can get back to some semblance of normal."
This isn't the first big award Perry has received recently. In September, he accepted the Governors Award at the 2020 Emmys, and later took home the People’s Champion award at the 2020 E! People’s Choice Awards back in November.
Check out the video below for more on Perry's humanitarian efforts during the pandemic over the past year.