Back in 2017, the MTV Video Music Awards aired weeks after a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, and one of the highlights was when Rev. Rob Lee IV, a supposed descendent of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, came on stage to denounce white supremacy in no uncertain terms.
— MTV (@MTV) August 28, 2017
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.
It was a powerful speech and it sure sounded like Lee was a direct descendent of the famed Confederate. If not a distant grandson, then certain a distant grandnephew. That linkage was also part of the story when he resigned from Bethany United Church of Christ, where he served, due to fallout from that MTV appearance.
It also came up in an article where Lee called for taking down statues of his ancestor despite being a “descendant of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s family.”
When that statue was removed last summer, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam even introduced Lee at a press conference by saying “We’ve been talking about his great-great-grandfather.”
But it turns out that’s not accurate. The general isn’t his “great-great-grandfather.” The general isn’t his uncle, either. In fact, there may not be any relationship with Lee at all. It may be a lie that Lee has let slide for years, never correcting the record, presumably because he had more to gain by people thinking he was related to the general instead of a random dude who simply shares the name… or, more likely, it may be a lie that he himself sincerely thought was true.
The Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler says there’s no evidence of Lee’s supposed ancestry, and he has the records to back that claim up.
Family tales and memories can often be inaccurate. Rob Lee may have firmly believed he was somehow related to Robert E. Lee, based on stories he heard at home about “Uncle Bob.”
Instead, he appears to be a descendant of Robert S. Lee, also known as “Uncle Bob,” who served in the Confederate forces — but was not a general.
Many people with Confederate ancestry have stepped forward to denounce the racist symbolism embodied in Confederate monuments. But, without new evidence that confirms his claim, the pastor should not state he is related to Robert E. Lee, especially in legal filings — and news organizations should not echo this claim.
The article goes into much, much more detail documenting Kessler’s evidence.
The Post adds that Lee was party in a lawsuit calling for the removal of a Confederate statue — and that lawsuit says he’s the “fourth great-nephew of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.” But after his lineage was challenged, Lee announced he was no longer part of the lawsuit.
2/2 Why the Post is so focused on my heritage and lineage while not focusing on the issues of the statue at hand is beyond me. As they mixed up even the most basic facts, I have removed my name from the lawsuit as not to detract from the community of Statesville that I love.
— Rev. Rob Lee (@roblee4) May 14, 2021
It’s entirely possible Lee was spreading a lie out of his own ignorance, and not out of a desire to deceive anyone. Family lore can be powerful even if it’s distorted. It happens. What’s important is a willingness to correct the record when confronted with the truth.
As it stands, Lee made several important points using his name to draw attention to the cause. He can still advocate for those values; he just needs to acknowledge that what he believed about his ancestors has turned out to be false.
In other words, there’s a way out of this. But those tweets indicate he’s not ready to accept the conclusion just yet. And if he insists there is a connection, then he is welcome to do his own research and offer documentation. If the Post can do this type of digging, there’s no reason he can’t.