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Robert E. Lee Descendant Resigns as Pastor Over Racial Justice Comment

The general's distant nephew, the Rev. Robert W. Lee IV, issued a statement Monday saying he resigned from Bethany United Church of Christ in North Carolina.
Image: Rev. Robert Wright Lee
The Rev. Robert Wright Lee, a descendant of Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee, presents the award for best fight against the system at the MTV Video Music Awards on Aug. 27, 2017, in Inglewood, California.Matt Sayles / AP
/ Source: Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. — A descendant of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee says he stepped down as pastor of a North Carolina church after negative reactions to his comments supporting racial justice during an MTV awards show "made it clear that I was no longer welcome there."

The general's distant nephew, the Rev. Robert W. Lee IV, issued a statement Monday saying he resigned from Bethany United Church of Christ near Winston-Salem after the congregation decided to put his tenure to a vote.

He said some church members were uncomfortable with his remarks praising the Black Lives Matter movement during the Aug. 27 MTV Video Music Awards. He was introducing the mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed during demonstrations over a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Lee also used the televised remarks to lament that his ancestor has become a symbol of racism.

"We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism and hate," he said. "As a pastor, it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America's original sin."

The MTV appearance brought unwanted attention to the small church about 100 miles west of Raleigh. The church has a Winston-Salem address, but serves the town of Midway, Lee said.

"A faction of church members were concerned about my speech and that I lifted up Black Lives Matter movement, the Women' s March, and Heather Heyer as examples of racial justice work," Lee said in the statement explaining his resignation.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Lee declined to elaborate on what was said by the church members who disagreed with him, but said it was clear he couldn't remain as pastor.

"The uncomfortable media attention and differing views with me by some of the congregation — and I want to make it very clear that it was not all of the congregation — made it clear that I was no longer welcome there," he said, adding that he's also received positive messages.

He said he received a supportive call Tuesday from the Rev. John Dorhauer, the national president of the United Church of Christ.

Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, and Robert Wright Lee IV speak during the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards on Aug. 27, 2017 in Inglewood, California.Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Two local congregation leaders listed in state nonprofit filings didn't respond to messages seeking comment Tuesday. The church's phone rang unanswered.

Lee also issued an apology to church members for causing them pain with his remarks on MTV. But he said he continues to "strongly support" removal of monuments to his ancestor and other Confederates.

Lee, a recent graduate of the Duke Divinity School and the great-great-great-great nephew of the Confederate general, was appointed pastor of the church in April, according to its website.

While Lee spoke out against racism in a 2016 Washington Post opinion piece that linked him to his namesake, he said his MTV appearance has garnered a much stronger reaction. But most of all, he said, he doesn't want the news about him to take attention away from larger conversations about racism in the U.S.

"I don't want this to be about me," he said.

Lee's remarks on MTV came in the aftermath of a rally by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned violent as the demonstrators clashed with counterprotesters. Heyer died when a driver plowed into a crowd that had gathered to denounce the white supremacists.