Relative of General Robert E. Lee pushing race conversation in an unexpected way

Relative of General Robert E. Lee pushing race conversation in an unexpected way

STATESVILLE, NC (WBTV) - On a Thursday afternoon in late April, Rob Lee stood in front of his public speaking class at Appalachian State University. The room was silent as he recited a quote encouraging his students to keep pushing the status quo.

At 25, Lee isn't much older than the college sophomores in his class. But many of his students did a double-take when hearing the name of their new professor.

"He was like, 'my name is Robert Lee,' and I was like, hold up a minute," sophomore Christian Mercado said.

The nearly identical names aren't a coincidence - the blood of Confederate general Robert E. Lee runs through his veins. The historical figure is Rob Lee's uncle, generations removed.

"I think as any kid I grew up proud of my family and the ancestral lineage that I have of being a nephew, generations removed, of Confederate General Robert E Lee. But as I grew up, I realized there are certain implications of that, especially in the south," Lee said.

Lee, who graduated with a masters of theological studies from Duke University Divinity School, says he began to look at his ancestral pride through the eyes of someone who may have a different skin color. And a moment of realization transpired.

"Robert E. Lee is in himself a figure in our history. But a lot of people have made him into something else, an idol of white supremacy," he said.

Last August, following the chaos that transpired in Charlottesville, Virginia, over a statue of his distant relative, Lee was interviewed on NPR's Morning Edition offering his two cents on the Confederate monument debate. He believes they all should come down.

"They were put up in the south, not right after the war but after Reconstruction failed, after the Jim Crow era started. These are not statues to the war dead or Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, this is a real and present danger of white supremacy and racism," he said.

Lee's comments on NPR got the attention of MTV. They invited him to introduce the mother of Heather Heyer on the Video Music Awards, the activist killed in Charlottesville by a self-proclaimed Neo-Nazi, while she was protesting the white supremacist rally.

Lee's statement on the VMA's wasn't long. He stood on stage in his clergy collar, calling for an end to racism and offering support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which he still stands by today.

"It comes from a deeply theological place in my support of them. That the God who created me is the same God who created them in God's image - and that is something to celebrate," he said.

Six months before he appeared on national television, Lee had taken the helm as pastor at Bethany United Church of Christ in Winston Salem. And while millions of strangers were watching MTV that night, he says his church back home was too. Lee never expected the controversy that would follow his statements.

"I had no idea what it would cost me in the end of losing my job and gaining some national prominence. In the end, I would do it again in a heartbeat, because it was worth it to speak up and speak out," he said.

After his departure, Bethany released a statement saying they were stunned to receive Lee's resignation and that he was not forced out by the church.

Lee won't talk too much about the exit, but he will talk about what he says caused it: speaking out. And his students have noticed.

"He's standing for the very opposite thing that his great great grandfather stood for and it's evidence that something is shifting," sophomore Sydni Loudermilk said.

Along with teaching as an adjunct professor at App, Lee speaks at rallies and churches across the country. He recently appeared with Coretta Scott King at a rally commemorating her father's assassination.

So what would Rob Lee's stone-faced relative think of his activism? His answer may come as a surprise.

"I would hope that he would be proud. Because Robert E. Lee, regardless of what he did and the evils he committed, stood up for something he believed in and I'm just trying to do the same," Lee said.

While Lee hopes to steer clear of controversy in the future, he doesn't plan on keeping quiet. He's a man determined to rewrite the history surrounding his famous name.

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