Distant relative of Lee says speaking out against racism ‘not white guilt’

September 16, 2017

Big families can be messy and even embarrassing. For Rev. Robert Wright Lee IV, family heritage has proved costly, even dangerous.

The great-great-great-great nephew of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, Lee recently resigned his position as pastor of Bethany United Church of Christ in Winston-Salem because of pushback he got after speaking out publicly against racism and white supremacists.

“Many in my generation are fed up with this,” Lee said.

Last month, during an appearance on MTV’s Video Music Awards, he called racism “America’s original sin” and said he was working to “answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy.” He was on the show to introduce the mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed during a clash between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va., over the proposed removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.

Lee said he was horrified to see the violent clash on television and decided he had to make a public stand, saying he felt “complicit” in the racism of others by not speaking out earlier.

“They may hate what I say, but they’re at least going to hear it,” he said. “I’m tired of hearing the excuses and the disagreements from church people. This should be an easy, slam-dunk conversation for us: Racism is not OK. These monuments are idols. We know what Christians should do with idols.”

Leaders of his Winston-Salem church didn’t like the attention he brought by making his stand, however, and when they decided to hold a vote on his future there, the 24-year-old Duke Divinity School graduate decided to quit his first job in the ministry.

He also received death threats, enough to prompt police protection and to force the family to unplug its phone.

“None of us has the ability to solve every racist problem ... but I do know that we all have a light,” he said. “If you shine your light, then you’re setting an example for others.”

Lee, who now teaches at Appalachian State University, said he plans to continue using his name and his calling to make a point.

“This is not white guilt. This is not some self-righteous, young white boy trying to make a difference in the world,” he said. “This is a deep-seated will and passion to reconcile what my family has done wrong with God’s plan for the world.

“The church has to be a mirror, whether we like it or not,” he said. “I’m not saying we abandon people who may have not been shown their privilege or their racism. We can’t, but what we can do is stand up to it.”

The tensions around race have little to do with statues and monuments, Lee said, and far more to do with the fear of confronting the racist history of the U.S.

“If we just take down the statues and bury them in a museum with little context, we aren’t having the conversation about racism, about white supremacy, about the KKK, about neo-Nazis, about Charlottesville. We are not having those difficult conversations we need to have to begin the healing of our nation,” he said.