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A descendant of Robert E. Lee denounced white supremacy at the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards. Reverend Robert Lee IV publicly decried the violent acts carried out by white supremacists and hate groups in protest of the removal of Confederate statues in Charlottesville, Virginia.
On August 27th, 2017, Robert Lee IV publicly rebuked white supremacy at the MTV Video Music Awards. He implored viewers to denounce the violent actions of white supremacist groups and invited Susan Bro to the stage. Bro is the mother of Heather Heyer, who passed away in Charlottesville after being hit by a car during a white supremacist rally. In his speech, Lee expressed the need for Americans to acknowledge the United States' violent past, stating:
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. 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. 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. (Auburn Seminary)
Immediately following the airing of the program, MTV began to receive disparaging comments regarding the content of Lee IV's speech. Followers of MTV's official Twitter account criticized their decision to give Lee IV airtime and expressed that they felt it was an overtly political move. Twitter users also commented that the speech was divisive and should not have been featured on MTV, which is known for its coverage of music and pop culture.
(Comments on MTV's original Twitter post about Lee IV's speech)
Although the attacks in Charlottesville occurred in 2017, the message of Lee IV's speech is still relevant today. Since the 2017 VMAs, white supremacist groups have continued to carry out violent hate crimes in America. According to a report published by the Anti-Defamation League, white supremacists were responsible for 18 out of 24 extremist-related homicides in the United States in 2017. This number represents a large spike from 2016, in which white supremacists were found responsible for a total of nine deaths. The ideals of white supremacy are still spreading and that the meaning and significance of Lee IV's speech at the VMAs has remained relevant over time. Since 2017, the Charlottesville attacks have also remained at the forefront of American news stories and the entertainment industry. Most recently, a clip of the attack was featured in the film BlacKkKlansman, which was released in 2018.
Lee IV's plea to viewers has also invoked discussions regarding the political views of the Catholic church. After appearing at the VMAs, he was heavily criticized by members of the Bethany United Church of Christ in North Carolina, where he regularly preached. Three weeks later, he left his position at the church; Lee IV cited the immense backlash he had received as the primary catalyst for his resignation. In a statement released after his resignation, Lee IV explained the reasoning behind his departure from the church, stating:
A faction of church members were concerned about my speech and that I lifted up [the] 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. (Auburn Seminary)
Since resigning from the church in 2017, Lee IV has continued encouraging others to confront white supremacy and acknowledge the United States' turbulent past. He has further stayed in the public eye through the use of social media. On October 14th, 2018, Lee IV tweeted a video to President Trump after he referred to Robert E. Lee as a " great general". In the video, Lee IV said that President Trump "is showing us that he supports an idol of white supremacy and of hatred… Robert E. Lee fought for the continued enslavement of black bodies. It was for states' rights, yes, but it was for states' rights to own slaves. I find myself saddened by the state of our nation." In the months following the VMAs, Lee IV's actions have sparked discussions of race and privilege across the country and have encouraged the public to think critically about the church's political views.
ADL. "ADL Report: White Supremacist Murders More Than Doubled in 2017." Anti-Defamation League.
"BlacKkKlansman - Ending Scene." YouTube, YouTube, 18 Dec. 2018.
"Charlottesville Car Attack Suspect Faces Murder Charge, Civil Rights Probe." CBS News, CBS Interactive.
Lee, Robert (roblee4). "My response to @realDonaldTrump and his comments last night about my collateral ancestor, Robert E. Lee." 13 Oct. 2018, 5:20am. Tweet.
MTV. "I call on all of us with privilege and power to confront racism and white supremacy head-on" - Robert Lee IV #VMAs." 27 Aug. 2017, 8:05pm. Tweet.
Phillips, Kristine. "Trump Called Robert E. Lee 'a Great General.' Robert Lee IV Disagrees." The Washington Post, WP Company, 14 Oct. 2018.
"Rev. Robert Wright Lee IV Statement On Leaving His Church After Speaking Out Against White Supremacy at MTV Video Music Awards." Auburn Seminary, 9 Nov. 2017.
Romano, Aja. "A Descendent of Robert E. Lee Joined Heather Heyer's Mother to Denounce Racism at the VMAs." Vox.com, Vox Media, 28 Aug. 2017.