Winston-Salem, N.C. — Robert Lee IV was an unlikely sight at the 2017 MTV Music Video Awards. Standing in pastor’s garb, he identified himself as a descendant of Robert E. Lee, and announced that he was there to decry the racism and violence that broke out in Charlottesville when white supremacists descended upon the town.
The angry mob was ostensibly there to protest the planned removal of the statue, but the real motive was to strike fear in the hearts of those who might wish to see a more equitable world realized in our lifetimes.
The violence culminated in the death of Heather Heyer, when a neo-Nazi plowed his car into a group of anti-racist demonstrators. Lee introduced Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, who announced the launch of the Heather Heyer Foundation, “a nonprofit organization that will provide scholarships to help more people join Heather’s fight against hatred.”
— MTV (@MTV) August 28, 2017
“My name is Robert Lee IV, I’m a descendant of Robert E. Lee, the Civil War general whose statue was at the center of violence in Charlottesville,” he said during his introduction. “We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism, and hate. As a pastor, it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin.”
“Today, I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on,” he continued. “We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women’s March in January, and, especially, Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs.”
While Lee received applause from the audience that night, not everyone back at his home church in Winston-Salem were as appreciative of his sentiments. The backlash has caused Lee to resign from his position at Bethany United Church of Christ.
Lee wrote a statement on the Auburn Theological Seminary website, explaining his decision, writing:
It was my deep honor to introduce and stand side-by-side Susan Bro whose daughter Heather died tragically in Charlottesville.
My presence at the church as a descendent of Robert E. Lee and an outspoken opponent of White Supremacy had already attracted attention, but with my appearance on MTV the media’s focus on my church reached an all time high. A faction of church members were concerned about my speech and that I lifted up Black Lives Matter movement, the Women’ s March, and Heather Heyer as examples of racial justice work.
I want to stress that there were many in the congregation who supported my right to free speech, yet were uncomfortable with the attention the church was receiving. The church’s reaction was deeply hurtful to me.
I want it to be clear that I feel a deep love for this congregation, and gratitude that they were willing to hire me as my first church out of seminary. I believe with all my heart that God did good work in my life there.
Lee added that when the church wanted to vote on his tenure, he tendered his resignation, and told the congregation, “I regret that speaking out has caused concern and pain to my church…I never sought this sort of attention. But, I do believe in God’s role in calling out for positive social change for the good of all.”