Local News

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

Posted September 15
Updated 12:59 p.m. Monday

— 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.

17 Comments

Please with your WRAL.com account to comment on this story. You also will need a Facebook account to comment.

Oldest First
View all
  • Deborah Turner Sep 16, 12:05 p.m.
    user avatar

    This guy is a counterfeit. If the Holy Spirit does not call you to preach.....you can talk until you are blue in the face but will not have the Holy Spirit working within you. You will seek the praise of men over the praise of God.

  • Deborah Turner Sep 16, 11:29 a.m.
    user avatar

    View quoted thread


    Have you ever researched the quotes that the Great President Lincoln made about the Black race ? Have you ever researched on how the Black people were treated in the Northern States in 1861 ? They were segregated from the white population and only allowed to have the worst jobs at the lowest wage. They were not allowed to have medicine when sick unless they "served" a rich man. Many thousands were homeless in the Northern cities, had little to eat and died every winter due to the harsh weather. The Yankees had little regard for the Black people. Why were there major riots by white men in New York and other large cities in the North during that war. They knew that was Lincoln's war and he had mandated a draft to make the white Yankee men fight it. The war against Northern aggression was about white men killing other white men. The South only had 29 percent of the total U.S. population in1860 covering 12 states....it can be easily researched.

  • Taylor Meade Sep 16, 8:58 a.m.
    user avatar

    The Southern Baptist church, which by the way separated from the Baptist Church to SUPPORT slavery and used the Bible to underscore that support " slaves obey they masters" ( it's in the Bible, lol) only apologized in 1995, but the apology underscores not only the southern baptist support of slavery, but their support of Jim Crow laws, segregation and institutional racism. They admitted it in black and white.

  • Taylor Meade Sep 16, 8:53 a.m.
    user avatar

    As Confederate Vice President Stephens very clearly and enthusiastically stated in his " Cornerstone speech"..."Our new government is founded upon exactly [this] idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth"

  • Sam Walker Sep 16, 7:27 a.m.
    user avatar

    View quoted thread



    Excellent post. To focus on just one unfortunate component such as slavery shows a real lack of complex thinking, although our schools do not appear to be turning out many critical thinkers. Revising history is to ignore the valuable lessons it teaches about mistakes. Hopefully we won't see them repeated once they are forgotten.

  • William Mann Sep 16, 3:38 a.m.
    user avatar

    I question Pastor Lee's motives for appearing on MTV. I am sure there are many more individuals and civil rights activists involved in peaceful protests that deserve more recognition and press time. From what I read in the article he has no specific history speaking out against racism in the past. I could understand why some in the church where he worked wanted to dismiss him for potentially bringing unwanted attention to his congregation. I would have accept his sudden notoriety is he was at the MTV program and was only there to apologize for his past family members behavior and actions in the past and nothing more.
    He just comes across as someone who used his family name and his profession in a very opportunistic and self righteous manner.

  • Teddy Fowler Sep 16, 2:36 a.m.
    user avatar

    Still chasing his 15 minutes of fame....

  • Roger Connor Sep 16, 2:21 a.m.
    user avatar

    Those of you who keep insisting that the Civil War was solely about slavery have obviously never studied or understood the reasons that the Confederate States took the huge step to remove themselves from the Union, why Lincoln defied the Supreme Court who told him that the States did have the right to secede, and why some fought what they considered a foreign invasion of their country, while others fought to preserve the Union. Please note that this divided families, and that some “Northerners” fought for the Confederacy, while some “Southerners” fought for the Union, against their neighbors and other family members. (To be especially clear, NO! None of the memorials to Confederates are “idols” nor are they “deified” by anybody. They are memorials to history, of the courage and honor of those that fought – regardless of what some think of their cause. Sort of like the maintenance of “historically Black Colleges” which is also a memorial to our historical racist pa

  • Roger Connor Sep 16, 2:18 a.m.
    user avatar

    View quoted thread



    First of all, I’m not Christian. Second, exactly what “institutional racism” are you referring? And by “against non-whites” are you including the Asians, the Arabs, the Hispanics, and the Amerinds, because from my perspective, they seem to be busy dealing with their own concerns, not attempting to tear down Confederate statues. You mention that I may feel my totems threatened. My “totems” are the Owl, a symbol of wisdom, the Turtle, a symbol of both longevity and individuality, the Dragon, simultaneously the symbols of fierce destructive force, knowledge, wisdom, longevity, and justice, and the Eagle, the symbol of the United States, which stands for our values of Freedom, and Justice under the law. None of these are threatened by any of the criminals who deface and destroy public property.

  • Joe Eastland Sep 15, 10:44 p.m.
    user avatar

    View quoted thread


    Much of the racism occurring today is actually against whites. Christianity has nothing to do with it. I'm Atheist.

More...