Robert E. Lee's Direct Descendant Denounces Charlottesville White Nationalists: 'There's No Place For That Hate'

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White supremacists gather under a statue of Robert E. Lee during a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12. Lee's descendants have denounced the violent actions that led to a counter-protester's death. Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Three days after Charlottesville, Virginia, erupted into violence and racial unrest, the family of Robert E. Lee is denouncing the white nationalist groups who rallied and marched to preserve a statue of the long-dead Civil War general. 

"There's no place for that," Robert E. Lee V tells Newsweek, referring to the white supremacist protesters who carried torches and marched through Charlottesville on Friday. "There's no place for that hate."

The statue of Lee, which has stood in Charlottesville since 1924, is now at the center of a racially charged conflict that has gripped the city and resulted in one woman's death. In February, the local city council decided to remove the statue from the park, noting that for many people, such Confederate monuments are "painful reminders of the violence and injustice of slavery and other harms of white supremacy that are best removed from public spaces." In May, white supremacist Richard Spencer organized a demonstration in support of the monument, and on Friday evening, a large group of torch-bearing white nationalist marchers descended on Charlottesville to protest the decision to remove the statue.

Related: Charlottesville statue of Robert E. Lee should be 'relocated,' says Jefferson Davis's great-great-grandson

Lee, a great-great-grandson of the Confederate hero, and his sister, Tracy Lee Crittenberger, issued a written statement on Tuesday condemning the "hateful words and violent actions of white supremacists, the KKK or neo-Nazis."

Then, Lee spoke with Newsweek by phone.

"We don't believe in that whatsoever," Lee says. He is quick to defend his ancestor's name: "Our belief is that General Lee would not tolerate that sort of behavior either. His first thing to do after the Civil War was to bring the Union back together, so we could become a more unified country."

The general was a slave owner who led the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War and who remains a folk hero throughout much of the South.

"We don't want people to think that they can hide behind Robert E. Lee's name and his life for these senseless acts of violence that occurred on Saturday," Lee says.

The Lee heir says it would make sense to remove the embattled statue from public display and put it in a museum—a view shared by the great-great-grandson of Jefferson Davis.

"I think that is absolutely an option, to move it to a museum and put it in the proper historical context," Lee says. "Times were very different then. We look at the institution of slavery, and it's absolutely horrendous. Back then, times were just extremely different. We understand that it's complicated in 2017, when you look back at that period of time...  If you want to put statues of General Lee or other Confederate people in museums, that makes good sense."

Lee, who works as a boys' athletic director at the Potomac School outside Washington D.C., says that his family was raised to believe that his great-great-grandfather "was fighting for his homeland of Virginia" and not for the preservation of slavery.

Historians, though, typically agree that the Confederate cause was "thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery," to quote from Mississippi's own declaration of secession. The Southern states that seceded were largely motivated by a desire to continue owning and using black slaves as property. (Lee's own personal views on slavery are commonly debated, though the general did own slaves and, as The Atlantic notes, "raged against Republican efforts to enforce racial equality on the South.")

The debate over Confederate monuments has erupted in other cities such as New Orleans, where a statue of Jefferson Davis was recently removed, and Durham, where protesters tore down a Confederate monument on Monday evening.

For the Lee family, the question of Confederate iconography is complicated as their family name becomes a rallying point for white nationalists. The younger Lee hopes that lawmakers and citizens in individual communities will "talk it over and [decide] what makes best sense for them in the times that we're living in today."

Lee declined to comment on Donald Trump's administration, nor on the president's erratic response to Charlottesville.

Here's the Lee family's statement in its entirety:

The events of the past weekend in Charlottesville were a terrible tragedy for America, for the state of Virginia and for us, the descendants of General Robert E. Lee. Our family extends our deepest condolences to the families who lost a loved one. We send our heartfelt sympathy to those who were injured, and pray for their recovery.

General Lee's life was about duty, honor and country. At the end of the Civil War, he implored the nation to come together to heal our wounds and to move forward to become a more unified nation. He never would have tolerated the hateful words and violent actions of white supremacists, the KKK, or Neo Nazis.

While the debate about how we memorialize figures from our past continues, we the descendants of Robert E. Lee decry in the strongest terms the misuse of his memory by those advancing a message of intolerance and hate. We urge the nation’s leaders as well as local citizens to engage in a civil, respectful and non-hateful conversation.

As Americans and as human beings it is essential that we respect one another and treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated. As General Lee wrote in his diary, “the great duty of life is the promotion of the happiness and welfare of our fellow man.”

Robert E. Lee V
Great-great-grandson of General Robert E. Lee

Tracy Lee Crittenberger
Great-great-granddaughter of General Robert E. Lee