The Rev. Robert Wright Lee IV, a descendant of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, took the podium near the end of the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday night to deliver a heartfelt statement against the violence that recently occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the name of his ancestor.
"We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism, and hate,” said Lee, a pastor at North Carolina's Bethany United Church of Christ. Later in the speech, he introduced Susan Bro, mother of the late Heather Heyer, who was killed in Charlottesville when a supporter of the “Unite the Right” rally drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters:
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.
As Bro took the stage, she received a standing ovation from the VMA audience. “Only 15 days ago, my daughter Heather was killed as she protested racism,” Bro said. “I miss her, but I know she is here tonight.”
Bro then announced the launch of a nonprofit scholarship fund, the Heather Heyer Foundation, “to help more people join Heather’s fight against hatred.”
She emphasized the fact that “Heather never marched alone. She was always joined by people from every race and every background in this country.” Bro went on to announce that MTV was giving the award for “Best Fight Against the System” to all six nominees in the category, and described the important work of each:
Through their diversity, the six videos show there are many ways to take action and many battlegrounds in the fight for social good. Big Sean decried violence. Alessia Cara spoke out about body-shaming. The Hamilton Mixtape and John Legend both took on the targeting of immigrants. Logic and Damien Lamar celebrated diversity. Taboo and Shailene Woodley rebelled against government exploitation.
I congratulate all these artists on their VMA tonight. And I look forward to the important work that they, and all of you, will do together to make the world a better, Kinder, place. Thank you.
The moment was the climax of an awards ceremony that seemed intermittently interested in the idea of resisting social injustice on the whole and the Trump administration more specifically. Though the overall evening ultimately seemed more about paying lip service to the idea of resistance than spurring real action, Lee and Heyer’s presence made tangible the entertainment industry’s connections to the world outside its door — even if only for a moment.