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Reckoning With The Heritage Of The South

Rob Lee with his mother on his left and his father on his right.
Courtesy of Rob Lee

The Rev. Rob Lee is a descendant of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee and an advocate for social justice. Despite his family history, Lee has confronted his own white privilege and actively works towards the goal of racial equity.

He spoke out publicly against racism at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2017, following the death of activist Heather Heyer at the Charlottesville protests. His public comments in some ways cost him his job, which is one of many stories he chronicles in his new memoir: “A Sin By Any Other Name: Reckoning With Racism And The Heritage Of The South” (Convergent Books/2019).

Host Frank Stasio talks to Lee about what it was like to grow up as a descendant of the Confederate general and the moments that forced him to confront his own privilege. Lee still preaches in churches and community centers across the country and shares with Frank Stasio his beliefs about the role of religion in addressing racism in the United States.

Interview Highlights

I think a lot of people are trying to get through their pasts. And I want them to know that that's possible. And I'm not some "woke" individual who's suddenly with it and got it. I mess up. But at least I'm trying. And that's kind of the point. That's the point of faith. - Rev. Rob Lee

Lee on the reaction he got from his progressive community after speaking out against racism at the MTV Video Music Awards:

I'm afraid white people are going to be white people. We've got to confront that in our own realities. No matter how progressive we think we are in our progressive circles of faith or wherever we are, we're going to have white privilege, and even white supremacy, dare I say. So what we have to acknowledge is that these situations are most unfortunate. But the real reality that we need to be confronting is not who’s in the pulpit — it's how we're confronting those realities together.

On white people in rural areas who don’t think they have white privilege:

I come from Appalachia — Piedmont of North Carolina. We've seen poorest of the poor in those areas. But that doesn't deny the fact that white people have a systemic advantage over people of color based on from the very foundations — and even before that — of this nation. We're marking the 400th anniversary of the transatlantic slave trade in 1619. We're having to acknowledge these things. And it may be hard, but it is necessary.

On his name:

I still like the fact that I'm a Lee. I don't mind it, and I'm not mad at my parents for naming me who I am. What I am mad about is what our culture has done with the name Lee. We have made him into an idol of white supremacy.

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Amanda Magnus is the editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships and health. She's also the lead producer for on-demand content at WUNC and has worked on "Tested" and "CREEP."
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.