The catch is that there’s more to that sentence, something we southerners are never taught: The Civil War was fought for states’ rights to enslave African people in the United States of America.
Many of us were never taught the rest of the sentence and are forced to discover it for ourselves, but my reality is unique amid the landscape of southern identity. My name is Robert W. Lee: I’m a Christian pastor, a husband, a friend, a son, a brother. But you undoubtedly realize that I bear the name of the icon of the Southern understanding of the world, and I also bear his heritage.
As a descendant of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s family, I have borne the weight and responsibility of that lineage. Even though my parents never pushed it or subscribed to all that it could entail, my own upbringing oozed with Southern pride. I had a black nanny — even in the 1990s — and a Confederate flag that hung in my bedroom until middle school. I believed that in commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee was a Christian man with the best of intentions.
But today I am proud to be part of a new era for the South and the country. And on Thursday, I was present with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) as they announced the intent of the commonwealth to remove the iconic statue of Lee on Richmond’s Monument Avenue.
I am fully aware that the broken, racist system we have built on the Lost Cause is far larger than a single statue, but the statue of my ancestor has stood for years in Richmond as an idol of this white supremacist mind-set. The statue is a hollow reminder of a painful ideology and acts of oppression against black people. Taking it down will provide new opportunities for conversations, relationships and policy change.
Many of my fellow Southerners are afraid that if we remove Confederate monuments, we will forget the legacy of Lee and our Southern heritage. If we are honest with ourselves, many of those fears are anxiety about a shifting way of life, a loss of a certain understanding.
Others of us have worked for generations to escape the scorn my family — and the Lost Cause mythology — has brought upon the nation. And for many of us, removing the statue of Lee was a culmination of years of work. For me, this symbolic gesture stands at the start of a new way of life in the South, a new cause that could replace the Lost Cause mentality if we get this right.
The new cause of this country is about justice, equality, peace and concord. We can and must be different. Now is the time to make this new cause the hope of this upcoming generation of activists. We can give the gift of Southern hospitality and community instead of passing on a pseudo-historical and oppressive understanding of the world.
To rest when symbols of oppression fall is to have only done a portion of the work. I have often lain awake at night wondering if I did the right thing in criticizing my uncle, or in supporting the statue’s removal, or in trying to move past the Lost Cause. I doubted — as all white people do — that this was my battle to fight. But even if that doubt was momentary, it shows that I have more work to do. We must begin anew each morning to redeem the world and atone for the past.
The work continues, and the new cause begins.