Robert E. Lee's Descendant On Confederate Statues
: [Editor's note (May 18, 2021): Subsequent to the publishing and airing of this story, the genealogical history of Robert Lee has been questioned. It's unclear whether he is a descendent of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee or of Robert S. Lee, who also fought in the Civil War but was not the famous general. We are reviewing these and will update accordingly.]
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
There is now a national conversation about - and a controversy over - Confederate statues. For the Rev. Robert Wright Lee IV, the battle over the Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Va., is personal. General Robert E. Lee was his uncle, many generations removed. But Rev. Lee wants the monument to the Civil War general, and others like it, removed.
ROBERT WRIGHT LEE IV: I do think they need to come down. I think it's time that we have a conversation about how to remember our past without commemorating our past.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: When I asked Rev. Lee how he had come to this position, he told me he had a murky metaphorical relationship with his famous uncle.
LEE IV: I grew up knowing about Robert E. Lee and who he was and what he stood for. I was told that he is a mixed bag by my parents in terms of what he stood for. Some said he stood for states' rights; some said he stood he stood for slavery. And I was left to determine what that meant for me. And so after kind of having to reconcile that for myself - when I would give my credit card to someone at the store and they'd see Robert Lee, they'd say, oh, you're related to him. And you'd either have to answer yes or no and then enter into a conversation about how the South will rise again with that person.
But I know that my parents have always raised me to believe to speak up and speak out about issues that are concerning our family and who we are as a family. And with this, it has become time to speak up about Robert E. Lee and what we think about him as a family.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Please tell us, what are your feelings, in the wake of Charlottesville, about the statues of your ancestor?
LEE IV: Well, I'm a pastor. And one of the things that I automatically go to is this is a form of idolatry, very plain and simply. We have made an idol of Robert Edward Lee. We have made him an idol of white supremacy. We have made him an idol of nationalism and of bigotry and of hate and of racism. And that's unacceptable. And not only as a person of goodwill but as for me as a Christian, I can no longer sit by and allow my family's name to be used as hate-filled speech.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Pastor, I'd like to note that you have, since you have come out publicly and talked about this, been receiving threats. Can you tell me what's been going on?
LEE IV: Yeah. Well, the message boards are lit up with people saying that people who are speaking out against white supremacy, including myself, should be taken care of, whatever that means. And it's been hard. I mean, I'm a 24-year-old. I'm a pastor. I'm not a violent person. I don't condone violence in any form. And so to see that there are people who wish to be violent against me and my family, against my church community is terrifying.
But I'm also reminded that I have to speak up and speak out in God's name and in the name of my family to protect what little dignity we have left and to possibly redeem the situation for our family so that, going forward, they can say, there was a Lee who stood up for what's right instead of standing up for the wrong side of history.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You gave a sermon on Sunday, and I'd like to read a little bit from that. You said, (reading) if you are silent at a moment like this, if you do not condemn the racism you see through whatever channels and avenues you have, you can leave church now because you're doing church wrong.
Is that the kind of message your parishioners are used to hearing on Sundays? And how have they responded?
LEE IV: Well, I would say it's not the message that we're used to hearing from our pulpits. But maybe now is the time to start having those messages. The parishioners responded with great grace and hope for the future. And they recognized that what we have been done - what we have done as a white, downtown church where I preached this sermon, in Statesville, was problematic because we have not spoken to our black neighbors. We have not spoken out for people of color, and we have to start doing that if we want to make a difference in this world and if we want to be relevant as a church in the 21st century.
I think about it this way. When the Israelites were freed from Pharaoh and went out into the wilderness, they had to be told time and time again who they were, why they were there, what they meant to God. And I think the same is true for our churches in the white church. We have to be told time and time again that we are complicit in racism, that we are complicit in privilege. But we are afforded some good privilege that we can use for good in this world.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you look around right now and you see how much consternation there is over this and the conversations that are happening around the country, why do you think it's important for you, as a descendant of Robert E. Lee, to speak out?
LEE IV: You know, that's a question I wrestle with all the time. You know, you could have a person of color on here as easily as you could have a descendant of Robert E. Lee. But I just got an email from a lady who spoke to me about being owned by my family and how her ancestors were owned by my family and what that meant for her and what that means for her now to hear someone speak out against it in the name of the Lees.
And I hear that, and I think to myself, gosh, if one person's opinion means that they have a different perception of what God is doing in this world to reconcile the world to God's self, then I'm doing it right. And if that means that I can redeem some of the past with my namesake, then I'm willing to do it. But I'm also trying to bring other people along with me and to say that this conversation is not about me, but I'm going to use whatever namesake I have to fight this.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Not all members of your family have felt the same way.
LEE IV: Correct. And I think that's hard because we look to our families for guidance and for values. But when families tell you to be quiet or to not speak up, you have to consider the costs. But ultimately, for me, there are members of the Lee family that will never agree with me. And it's a big, big clan. There are a big group of Lees. But I know deep down that in some small way, if this is making a difference, using Robert Lee - my name, Robert Lee IV - as someone who can say that this is wrong, then it's worth every ounce of strength I have. It's worth my life. It's worth my dignity. It's worth everything I've got to redeem this situation.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Pastor Robert Wright IV, thank you very much for joining us.
LEE IV: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID PRITCHARD'S "UNASSIGNED TERRITORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.