Relative of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee quits NC church over criticism

Visitors to Duke Chapel react to damage on a statue of Robert E. Lee

Video: Vandals struck the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee outside Duke Chapel on Duke University’s campus sometime Wednesday night or early Thursday Aug. 17, 2016.
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Video: Vandals struck the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee outside Duke Chapel on Duke University’s campus sometime Wednesday night or early Thursday Aug. 17, 2016.

A relative of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee who made headlines for denouncing racism on last month’s MTV Video Music Awards has announced he is leaving his post at a Winston-Salem church after some in the congregation expressed discomfort over some of the statements he has been making.

Among the concerns raised by some is that the Rev. Robert Wright Lee IV was “lifting up” the Black Lives Matter movement. That movement has been accused of inciting violence at protests such as the ones staged in uptown Charlotte last September over the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott, who is black.

Lee is the great-great-great-great-nephew of Robert E. Lee.

In a letter published on AuburnSeminary.org, he said some members of Bethany United Church of Christ in Winston-Salem supported his right of free speech, while others were worried about the attention it was attracting to the church.

The Confederate statue on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus known as 'Silent Sam' was a point of friction and protest long before becoming part of the national conversation. Here's a look at the monument's history.

“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 (and) the Women’s March … as examples of racial justice work,” according to the letter.

“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.”

Lee suggested in the letter that his decision was prompted by a recent move within the church to vote on his tenure.

The letter included a statement Lee said he issued at the church in response to the proposed tenure vote, apologizing for the pain he may have caused the church. In a Sept. 3 tweet, Lee said he “had to resign.”

“I understand that my views could be considered to be controversial. 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,” the letter states. “I do not want my fight to detract from the mission. If the recent media attention causes concern with my church, I reluctantly offer my resignation.”

In an August interview with the (Raleigh) News & Observer, Lee acknowledged his family ties to the Confederacy’s greatest hero and said it was time to move monuments of his ancestor into museums, where they can be used to educate.

Police officers quickly hustle protester in custody through the crowd of angry protesters at a march on the UNC campus calling for the removal of the Confederate statue known as "Silent Sam".

Media scrutiny of Lee’s life as a pastor began after the violence in Charlottesville, Va., surrounding a monument to his ancestor. That attention culminated in his Aug. 27 appearance on the MTV awards, where he said he found inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the Women’s March in January and Heather Heyer, who died during the protests in Charlottesville.

Lee was both praised and brutally criticized for his taking part in the glitzy awards show.

“You sir are not a Christian pastor,” posted Janis Moore in response to a Winston-Salem Journal story on Lee. “Instead of appearing on television maybe you should spend some time ministering in the community around the church where you are ‘pastor.’ 

“This guy was so caught up in the glitz,” posted Patricia Merchant on Facebook. “Exactly how long has this character been on a crusade against social injustices? Three days? Three weeks? Three months? Since Charlottesville? Never? He will spin this into a pretty little PR opportunity. … He's a phony.”

Others expressed support for Lee on Twitter.

“Rob didn't walk on eggshells. Well done, brother,” tweeted Christian writer and activist Brian D. McLaren.

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