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Robert E. Lee’s relative finds bigger pulpit: MTV’s VMAs

The Rev. Robert Wright Lee, a descendant of Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee, presents the award for best fight against the system at the MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Inglewood, Calif.
The Rev. Robert Wright Lee, a descendant of Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee, presents the award for best fight against the system at the MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017, in Inglewood, Calif. Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

North Carolina’s Rev. Robert W. Lee IV – the fourth-great-nephew of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee – appeared on MTV’s Video Music Awards Sunday night to encourage an audience of millions to denounce racism.

Amid the spectacle of performances by Kendrick Lamar, Lorde, Ed Sheeran and a dozen others, Lee’s moment was described online as the most moving moment of the show.

He shared the stage with Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer. Heyer is the woman who was killed Aug. 12 after a self-described neo-Nazi drove into a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va. White supremacist groups were in Charlottesville to rally around a statue of Robert E. Lee that the City of Charlottesville plans to remove from one of its public parks.

“I’m a descendant of Robert E. Lee, the Civil War general whose statue was at the center of violence in Charlottesville,” Lee said during the broadcast, with his black cleric’s shirt and collar a sharp contrast to the flashier clothing worn by the musical performers and celebrities in the audience.

“We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism and hate,” he continued. “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. 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 in Charlottesville.”

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Susan Bro and Robert W. Lee IV speak onstage during the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards at The Forum on August 27, 2017 in Inglewood, California. Kevin Winter Getty Images

Some online criticized Lee’s reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, which they called a racist group.

Lee, 24, grew up in Statesville and graduated this year from Duke Divinity School. He is an adjunct professor at Appalachian State University and pastor of Bethany United Church of Christ in Winston-Salem. While at Duke, he served as a pastoral intern at Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh.

After the events in Charlottesville raised the public’s awareness of Confederate statues and monuments that dot the nation’s landscape, Lee was featured in several national media outlets, including NPR and HuffPost, speaking out against the complicated legacy of his great-great-great-great uncle.

He told The News & Observer earlier this month it’s his moral obligation to speak out about the use of his relative’s likeness to promote racism.

“Supremacy was never God’s plan for our lives,” he said then, adding that he doesn’t speak for the rest of his family.

Lee was unavailable for comment on Monday.

On Sunday’s show, which was broadcast live from Inglewood, Calif., Lee introduced Bro, who announced the winners of the Best Fight Against the System award. Bro also announced the creation of the Heather Heyer Foundation, a nonprofit that will provide scholarships to “help people join Heather’s fight against hatred.”

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin

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