There is an extraordinary column in the Washington Post from Glenn Kessler on a key figure in past coverage on the removal of Confederate statues. The Post ran a widely cited article on how Robert E. Lee’s own descendant wanted the general’s statues to be removed. The problem is that no one at the Post appears to have actually checked to see if Rev. Robert W. Lee was an actual descendant. It now appears that he is not, according to Kessler. While Kessler strangely does not believe this warrants his signature “Pinocchios,” he should be credited for doing something that no one in the media seemed inclined to do: confirm the story, even belatedly. It was, as the old journalistic saying goes, “a fact too good to check.”
Kessler is rebounding from a controversy over what many viewed as a “hit job” that he wrote on Sen. Tim Scott (R., S.C.) in which he suggested that Scott had lied about this family history. Despite an accusatory headline, Kessler actually found nothing that refuted Scott’s “from cotton to Congress” account. This family claim by Rev. Lee may have been entirely fabricated and certainly was made without clear factual basis.
Rev. Lee was lionized by the Post and other media after he denounced Gen. Lee at the MTV Video Music Awards.
“My name is Robert Lee the Fourth. I am a descendent 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 everyone with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on.”
The media could not get enough of the image and Rev. Lee fueled the frenzy. In an opinion article in The Washington Post, June 7, 2020, Rev. Lee was identified as “Plaintiff Reverend Robert Wright Lee IV (“Lee”) is a white resident of Iredell County. Lee is the fourth great-nephew of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.”
Even lawyers took the claim at face value in what could be viewed as an even more serious breach. In a lawsuit seeking removal of a Confederate statue, filed in Iredell County, the court was told “Plaintiff Reverend Robert Wright Lee IV (“Lee”) is a white resident of Iredell County. Lee is the fourth great-nephew of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.” Lawyers are not allowed to make such representations to the Court without a good-faith basis, particularly on the background of a key party. Lee is prominently featured as the second named Plaintiff in the lawsuit.
The Post has found no evidence that Rev. Lee is in any way related to Gen. Lee. He may be just a guy named Lee.
Kessler noted that “the Rev. Robert W. Lee IV has, since 2016 “parlayed his ancestry on behalf of what many may regard as a noble cause” — not to mention parlayed to international notoriety.
What is interesting is that Rev. Lee does not contest that he has been falsely claiming the distinction. He issued a statement on Sunday that notably did not contest the findings or, more importantly, supplied any proof of his earlier claims. Instead, he cites his own credentials as an anti-racism activist:
“My mission and ministry has been confronting white supremacy as a sin. Regardless of whether you believe me or the article, the fact remains that either lineage participated and profited from racism and slavery. That ends with me.”
What was more curious is Rev. Lee previously harrumphing at the notion that anyone in the media was focusing on whether his claim of being a descendant was actually true: “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.”
It was certainly beyond most in the media who were only interested in using the image of a Lee descendant to support the removal of statue regardless of the truth of the matter. Rev. Lee used his claim to elevate his voice above others and add the support of a Lee family member to the cause of removing these statues. He then expressed surprise that anyone is interested in confirming if he misled millions on this claim.
The appeal of using a descendent to make such demands is obvious. The media did the same thing with a descendent of Thomas Jefferson. The suggestion is that, if the family does not even support these statues, only racists or reactionaries would fight to preserve them. The effort is to cut short a needed debate over how to describe what statues should be removed and what should be retained.
I have been writing and speaking for years about the movement to remove statues that range from confederate leaders to Columbus to Supreme Court justices to Founders (here and here and here and here). I specifically wrote about the call for the removal of monuments to George Washington and others as the list lengthens of figures to be cleansed from public historical displays.
As I have previously written, there are statues that should be removed but it is important that such decisions are made collectively and with circumspection:
Two decades ago, I wrote a column calling for the Georgia legislature to take down its statue of Tom Watson, a white supremacist publisher and politician who fueled racist and anti-Semitic movements. Watson was best known for his hateful writings, including his opposition to save Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager accused of raping and murdering a girl. Frank was taken from a jail and lynched by a mob enraged by such writings, including the declaration of Watson that “Frank belongs to the Jewish aristocracy, and it was determined by the rich Jews that no aristocrat of their race should die for the death of a working class Gentile.”
Yet today there is no room or time for such reasoned discourse, just destruction that often transcends any rationalization of history.
The parading of claimed distant relatives calling for removals is a powerful way to undermine arguments that we are wiping away our own history rather than presenting these figures in their proper context.
Rev. Lee knew that his views on the removal of statues was not nearly as important as his self-identity as a descendant of Gen. Lee. Yet, the fact that he may not have any familial connection to the general is being dismissed by Lee and others. It was useful as a narrative at the time and served its purpose.
The fact that it may be “fake news” is barely worth a mention on most news sites that ran with the story. It is an example of the corrosive effect of advocacy journalism. It comes at too high a price — in this case for both Rev. Lee and the media. As Gen. Lee noted “Never do a wrong thing to make a friend or keep one; the man who requires you to do so is dearly purchased at a sacrifice.”