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America’s ‘angriest’ theologian faces lynching tree
A crowd gathers in Marion, Indiana, in 1930 to witness a lynching. This photograph inspired the poem and song “Strange Fruit.”
April 21st, 2012
10:00 PM ET

America’s ‘angriest’ theologian faces lynching tree

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - When he was boy growing up in rural Arkansas, James Cone would often stand at his window at night, looking for a sign that his father was still alive.

Cone had reason to worry. He lived in a small, segregated town in the age of Jim Crow. And his father, Charlie Cone, was a marked man.

Charlie Cone wouldn’t answer to any white man who called him “boy.” He only worked for himself, he told his sons, because a black man couldn’t work for a white man and keep his manhood at the same time.

Once, when he was warned that a lynch mob was coming to run him out of his home, he grabbed a shotgun and waited, saying, “Let them come, because some of them will die with me.”

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James Cone knew the risks his father took. So when his father didn’t come home at his usual time in the evenings, he’d stand sentry, looking for the lights from his father’s pickup truck.

“I had heard too much about white people killing black people,” Cone recalled. “When my father would finally make it home safely, I would run and jump into his arms, happy as I could be.”

Cone takes on a theological giant

Cone left his hometown of Bearden, Arkansas, and became one of the world’s most influential theologians. But the memories of his father and lynch mobs never left him. Those memories shaped his controversial theology, and they saturate his recent memoir, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.”

Cone, who once called himself “the angriest theologian in America,” is still angry. His book is not just a memoir of growing up in the Jim Crow era; it’s a blistering takedown of white churches, and one of America’s greatest theologians, Reinhold Niebuhr - a colossal figure often cited by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today, Niebuhr’s importance is acknowledged by both liberal and conservative Christian leaders. President Obama once called him one of his favorite philosophers. Niebuhr, the author of classics such as “The Irony of American History,” died in 1971 after a lifetime of political activism.

Cone, however, said neither Niebuhr nor any other famous white pastor at the time spoke out against the most brutal manifestation of white racism in the 20th century America: lynching.

Between 1880 and 1940, Cone says, an estimated 5,000 black men and women were lynched. Their murders were often treated as festive affairs. Women and children cut off the ears of lynching victims as souvenirs. People mailed postcards of lynchings. One postcard of a charred lynching victim read, “This is the barbeque we had last night.”

But Niebuhr said nothing about lynching, little about segregation, and once turned down King’s request to sign a petition calling on the president to protect black children integrating Southern schools, Cone said.

Niebuhr’s decision not to speak out against lynching encouraged other white theologians and ministers to follow suit, Cone said, because Niebuhr was considered the nation’s greatest theologian.

“White theologians didn’t say anything about lynching,” Cone said from his office at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he teaches a course on Niebuhr. “I tried to find a white theologian who addressed it in a sustained way. No one did it.”

Cone’s criticism of Niebuhr baffles at least one well-known Niebuhr scholar. Charles Lemert, author of “Why Niebuhr Matters,” said King often cited Niebuhr as an inspiration. He said he’d never heard that Niebuhr rejected a petition request from King. “It would be so remote from everything the man was.”

Lemert said Niebuhr had established a long record of speaking out against racism, beginning when he became a pastor in Detroit. Niebuhr may not have spoken out against lynching and other forms of racism later on because of another reason, Lemert said.

“He had a debilitating stroke in 1951,” Lemert said. “By the time the civil rights movement was full blown, he was retired and getting ill.”

Why Cone is angry

Cone has spent much of his career condemning the white church for saying little about slavery or racial justice. Yet his pugnacious reputation doesn’t jibe with his appearance. He is a slight man with a boyish face, cinnamon complexion and dimples. He has a high-pitched voice that drips with the Southern inflections of his native Arkansas.

Cone first gained attention in 1969 with the release of “Black Theology and Black Power,” a book he wrote after urban race riots and King’s assassination.

That book took theology out of academia and placed it on the still-smoldering streets. He became known as the father of “black liberation theology.” He said God was black (he meant it figuratively) because God was closest to those who were oppressed and despised - black people in America.

Cone said his passion for justice comes from growing up in the black church.

Cone blended the racial pride of the black power movement with an emphasis on social justice that had been a part of the black church since enslaved Africans first read the Bible. Jesus' primary message, he said, wasn't about getting people to heaven, but liberating people here and now from oppression - racial, economic and spiritual.

Cone said he was tired of white theologians writing about an otherworldly theology while cities burned and blacks were murdered by racists.

“I felt like I was the angriest black theologian in America,” he once wrote in his book “Risks of Faith.” “I had to speak out.”

Cone inspired some and angered others.

Critics say he developed a divisive, racist theology that describes God as black and whites as evil. They say he’s stuck in the '60s and never abandoned the bitterness of growing up in segregation.

Supporters say Cone exposed the hypocrisy of white churches and gave voice to helpless, poor and oppressed Christians in places as far away as China and Latin America.

The Rev. James Ellis III, an author who has been both critical and supportive of Cone, says before Cone, theology was interpreted through a white male perspective.

Cone has inspired not only blacks but also women and other racial minorities to enter seminaries and the pulpit, he says.

“Whether you agree with Cone or not, he’s definitely someone you need to deal with,” said Ellis, author of “OnThaGrindCuzin: The School Daze of Being ‘Incognegro’ in 1619.”

“He takes the gloves off and gets down to the nitty-gritty.”

Jonathan Walton, an assistant professor of African American Religious Studies at Harvard University, said listening to Cone is like “listening to a Hebrew prophet.”

For many people, Walton says, Cone “exposed that the God that they were worshiping was more consistent with the Pharaoh in Egypt than the Hebrew children.”

Cone said people still misunderstand his theology. He said he does not believe that whites are more sinful than others.

“God made us all as brothers and sisters,” he said. “I’m mad when people don’t treat others as brothers and sisters. I’m concerned about the suffering of all people, not just black people. If anybody is being treated unjustly, I’m with them.”

Singing about the ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’

Cone said his passion for justice comes from growing up in the black church. In his recent memoir, he describes how blacks relied on music and faith to deal with the cruelty of segregation.

On Saturday nights, he said, blacks in his hometown would go to juke joints with names like Sam’s Place to hear blues songs like “Hoochie Coochie Man.” On Sunday mornings, some of the same people would go to church to sing spirituals like “Lord, I Want to be a Christian in My Heart.”

Church comforted Cone, but it also made him ask questions.

“My thing was, if the white churches are Christian, how come they segregate us? And if God is God, why is He letting us suffer?”

The cross, he said, helped him find some answers. He said many white Christians “spiritualize” the cross, seeing it as a penalty Jesus had to pay for mankind’s sins.

But black Christians, starting with the slaves who took up the Bible, also viewed the cross as a way to cope with suffering.

Blacks looking at the images of lynching victims took heart from Jesus’ suffering on the cross and his resurrection, Cone said.

He writes:

“Black Christians believed that just knowing that Jesus went through an experience of suffering in a manner similar to theirs gave them faith that God was with them, even in suffering on lynching trees just as God was present with Jesus in suffering on the cross.”

Cone also talked about his personal suffering in his memoir.

He writes about his wife, Sandra, who died of cancer in 1983. He saw her on the night she died. He said they were joking and laughing as she chided him for not leaving her hospital room to get rest.

He finally did leave, but she died at 3 that morning. Thinking about the cross helped him grieve, he said.

“God talked me through that,” he said, his voice softening. “You look suffering right in you eye and say, ‘You may get me, but you’re not going to have the last word.’ ”

Cone also talks about his parents, Charlie and Lucy, who inspired him and his two brothers. Charlie was a woodcutter who encouraged his wife to return to school, where she eventually earned a college degree.

“I didn’t grow up with a lot of fear,” he said. “I just thought my mother and father would protect me.”

One of Cone’s fears today, though, is that the contemporary black church is losing its distinctive theology. He said there’s less talk about justice and more talk about prosperity.

“You go to almost any black church today, and you don’t hear spirituals anymore,” he said. “What you hear is this happy, ‘I’m prosperous’ kind of stuff. I’m not for that. You don’t come to church to be entertained. You come to wrestle with your spirit.”

Cone may still be angry, but he’s also mellowed. He’s tempered some of the voltage from the language he used in his earlier books. And he’s accepted criticism from some black women theologians who said he didn’t include the perspective of black women in his works.

Yet thoughts of his childhood and his parents never seem far off. In his books and lectures, he returns once again to them, especially when people compliment him for his boldness. In one essay, Cone wrote:

“At most, what I say and do are just dim reflections of what my parents taught and lived.”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Bible • Black issues • Books • Christianity • Church • Crime • Culture wars • Persecution • Prejudice • Race

soundoff (2,563 Responses)
  1. Jimmy

    You can always count on CNN to run stories on racism or on gay rights.They make their living off this type of story.They don't know anything else.

    April 22, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • dhondi

      you can't expect them to make a living off of journalism...those days were over with the departure of Bernard Shaw.

      April 22, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  2. mike jablonski

    Piers , and all you other brits are needed back home .till then , i will tune in on american broadcasts . miss you mr. larry king .

    April 22, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  3. JB

    CNN, going for another round of racial warfare. Keep fanning the flames Idiots.

    April 22, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • dhondi

      cnn=epic troll.

      April 22, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • MotoJB

      Yep, ridiculous...

      April 22, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  4. Christopher

    Its read comments because white people get upset when people bring up the past history of America. No one is blaming you but this is an interesting story to read. If it was left up to you all i suppose it would just be burned from everyone's memory right?

    April 22, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • smh

      Couldn't have said it better!! You're exactly right!

      April 22, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  5. Aaron

    Seriously? We're still on about lynching? Was there any reason for CNN to run this article whatsoever? MOVE ON. Shame on CNN for trying to incite hate. What you're doing should be a crime.

    April 22, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • dhondi

      cnn covets the black mouse click.

      April 22, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • smh

      LOL What you are saying should be a crime!! It is AMAZING to me how some/most white people never want to see any articles about racism on any level because it's "starting a race war". Are you ignorant?? It seems like the ppl on here that are doing the most complaining are the ones that feel guilty for whatever reason.. umm maybe because you are a bigot and racisit yourself. Maybe if schools taught the REAL truth in schools about this type of things it would be a step in healing from it.. but all of your ignorant racist comments are the EXACT REASON that these types of stories still run.. and these types of race crimes STILL happen today.. maybe not lynching but being hung and drug from the back of a truck seems a little MORE rough to me.. all you're missing is a crowd of happy cheering white ppl.

      April 22, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • Aaron

      I never said anything about starting a race war, nor said anything about being racist or guilty, so I'm going to guess you clicked the wrong button.

      April 22, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • ARandomGirl

      You are missing the full picture. This is part of history, in order to make less mistakes America has to own it's past. It's rude to say to move on from the subject. It's like saying to forget the many victims who died. To erase their importance and lives from the slate of history is like teetering on the brink of ignorance . Yes, we are making progress but we have a long way to go. Those who are "white" and those who are not should recognize the history that has shaped our current lives.

      April 22, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Aaron

      Look, I have no problems with black people. I'm all for everyone being treated equally, but it sure is hard to treat you equally when you're on CNN everyday telling me how racist and evil I am because my ancestors might have owned a slave, or because some guy I dont know told some lady you don't know to give up her bus seat.

      "Respect the past, create the new." That doesn't mean bring up the past and use it as a crutch to tell me I'm evil. Slavery and lynchings were bad, no doubt about it. But I didn't do it. Stop telling me I'm an evil white man that's holding you down because of it.

      April 22, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  6. William

    This piece will not quilt me into voting for obama. His policies are bankrupting this country.

    April 22, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • dhondi

      Why would you feel guilt?

      April 22, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • tomnikoly

      "His policies are bankrupting this country."

      No, they are not. There ARE policies which started about the time of the Reagan administration which are only bankrupting part of the country....the middle class.

      April 22, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • WebCrawler101

      Bankrupting the country? Bush spent two terms on that!

      April 22, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  7. Casual Observer

    How come CNN never writes tear jerk articles about the tens of thousands of white people murdered by black thugs since our government has denied us the right of freedom of association? Where was the outrage over the Channon and Christie murders a while back? CNN and the rest of the media are controlled by a handful of people with truly evil intent. Perhaps one day we will see a tree bearing the strange fruit of former editors. Wouldn't that be a happy sight?

    April 22, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  8. Lazlo

    Another attack on "White" Christianity on the CNN Belief page. Imagine that.

    More than that, though, it's a shame they have to keep going back to atrocities committed in their fathers times to keep up a racist dialog, and to try to perpetuate the myth of similar (but subtle, heh!) conditions today. Who, today, supports Jim Crow laws? Or lynchings? Or for that matter, haven't heard of them in the past month? Do the editors think they are being edgy? Or even current? The problem with over-exposure is that sooner or later even the most sympathetic respond with an anemic "meh, enough already. Why does this concern me now?" I realize that race will be an important plank in the upcoming Democratic platform, but methinks they have jumped the shark.

    April 22, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • leslee

      White christianity? These people in the picture arent christians.

      April 22, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • Lazlo

      Indeed they were, Leslee. But also men, prone to sin and all manner of abhorrent behavior. As I have heard said: "The Chrurch is not a hotel for the righteous, but a hospital for the sinner. It's something the anti-christians should keep in mind, as well as the our fellow parishioners.

      April 22, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  9. Melvin Painter

    Where are all the stories about how the liberal news media incited the clueless public with their made-up racist stories of Sanford, Florida.

    April 22, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  10. rainbow

    CAPITALISM NEEDS TO KEEP THE FOCUS ON WORKERS FIGHTING RATHER THAN UNITING. IF WE STOP FIGHTING WE SEE THE BIG PICTURE WHICH IS THAT PROFITS BEFORE PEOPLE IS THE AMERICAN WAY OF DOING OUR EVERYDAY BUSINESS. RACISM IS A TOOL OF CAPITALIST
    RULE. WAKE UP EVERYBODY TIME TO BUILD A NEW LAND!

    April 22, 2012 at 10:37 am |
  11. Dana

    Another angry black guy.

    April 22, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • rick

      we are all angry

      April 22, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  12. Rasheed

    Fortunately racism is largely extinct but for the media and certain racist mouthpieces agitating in wake of the Martin shooting case. And the real kicker here is, the Martin shooting case has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with whether or not self defense was justified in a shooting. How that falls past many people is baffling, unless certain people are still seeking appeasement for things I thought we were long past. It is not bad judgement in reporting this story, but questionable judgement in placing it as the banner headline. Why would that be, CNN?

    April 22, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • tomnikoly

      "Fortunately racism is largely extinct"

      You haven't been paying attention.

      April 22, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Rasheed

      Tomnikoly, I repeat it is largely, largely extinct. If you seek it, however, you will find it, much like any other specialized niche you are after. Back when lynchings occured, it was not extinct, clearly. But if you can't see the light as to how far we've come since then, you have a negative outlook and seemingly wish there to be turmoil.

      April 22, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • roldoc

      Wishful thinking from someone who still thinks that if you ignore rscism then they will feel comfortable and things will be "all right".This is a very simplistic approach.A sure way to have racism instead of racial reconcillation as our future.

      April 22, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  13. Melvin Painter

    Keep bringing up race stories of the past, and you shall continue the pathetic actions of buffoon obama, jesse jackazz, al shupton, and the rest of the racist and race-baiters.

    April 22, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • smh

      the racist people like YOU? G T F O H .. you're probably one of the kids standing in the pic at the top cheering the lynching on.

      April 22, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  14. shut_up

    Gary cooper starred in a movie called "the hanging tree" i have never heard of a lynching tree. wouldnt they both hurt????????????????

    April 22, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  15. Rainer Braendlein

    "The cross, he said, helped him find some answers. He said many white Christians “spiritualize” the cross, seeing it as a penalty Jesus had to pay for mankind’s sins.", Cone said.

    It is really a problem that many "Christians" reduce Jesus a scapegoat. This is pure idolatry.

    The real Jesus died not only for the sake of forgiveness, but also for the sake of our deliverance.

    If one reduces the gospel a gospel of mere forgivenes,s he commits the sin of idolatry.

    According to Romans 6 we have died and resurrected with Jesus or, in other words, we are dead for the sin and "in Christ" by sacaramental baptism. By sacr. baptism, the rebirth, we get connected with Christ's death and resurrection and become new human beings, which overcome their sinful, selfish, hateful nature by the Holy Spirit or nature of Christ, which is a nature of true and pure love.

    I am busy with Christianity for about 25 years and never someone told me that.

    How do I know that?

    I have read the book "The Cost of Discipleship" by Bonhoeffer.

    Get the real faith, which helps you to love people, independent from color, belief, nationality, status, etc..

    April 22, 2012 at 10:31 am |
  16. Name*Deeda

    ...difficult time to live in the south. May God continue to bless the people whose family member(s)/friend(s) became "strange fruit".

    April 22, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  17. Dan

    This guy sounds like another racist like Al Sharpton. There will be racism as long as you keep pointing it out.

    April 22, 2012 at 10:29 am |
    • smh

      That is what every guiltly person thinks... don't talk about it and it will go away.. umm no.. Look at the picture at the top of this article!!!!! H E L L – NO it's not "going away"... it's a part of history no matter how unfortunate it was.

      April 22, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  18. mtnman

    LEONARD, don't worry we won't come there simply because YOU'RE there.

    April 22, 2012 at 10:29 am |
  19. Buck

    Gimme a break. American blacks kill almost as many of each other in one year, in one homicide category (i.e., single perp./ single victim) as were lynched by whites over an 80 year period. Don't believe me? Look it up.

    April 22, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Victor

      hmm... guilty, much? Just because black people kill each other now (and I agree with you that that do, sadly) doesn't mean lynching was right.

      April 22, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • smh

      Buck, how about you give us a break!??? The blacks that do kill other blacks are just like whites that kill other whites.. they are all crazy! But do NOT base your stereotype on a whole race of ppl.. that makes you sound ignorant. That would be like me saying it's YOUR fault for the lynchings because some white ppl participated.. ridiculous!

      April 22, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • Jennifer C

      Amen, Victor! I find most of the responses to this article depressing. This is not ancient history. Ignoring what happened a mere 60 years ago is dangerous. I hope James Cone continues to shout the truth from every rooftop.

      April 22, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  20. rand

    Are we still lynching people? Am I missing something? Didn't this stuff happen over 60 years ago? Why aren't we celebrating the fact that this never happens in America anymore? Didn't we free the slaves? Seems to me that over 125 years ago we said "you're FREE" Are we to feel guilty for something others did decades ago? we've done nothing but try to repair the damage yet the blame NEVER goes away................

    April 22, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Victor

      Because if we stop talking about it, the next generation will think it never happened. Much like we cannot forget the evils of the Holocaust and what happened in WW2, we cannot forget this, either.

      April 22, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Keith

      It still happens in the south every now and then. I guess you don't count the last couple of guys because they drug them behind pickup trucks instead of hanging them from a tree

      April 22, 2012 at 10:38 am |
    • smh

      Why do you not want to talk about it? It can't be ignored like it never happened, regardless how long ago it was. Racism is still prominent in the US. The blame will never go away, ever.. so get over it. It happened period, no matter how much you would like it to just disppear and be forgotten. If it happened to your family, your race, you would feel differently.

      April 22, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • anpula

      The issue is that the same social forces which made lynching a form of entertainment, still exists. White people still view black people as less than equals in every way. We are all equal and we are all sinners. White people kill just as many people (both white and black) as Black people do, yet, the White race will still have you believe that they commit sin less than their non-white counterparts. I feel that White people today are guilty and ashamed of their past and present treatment and feelings of other races. I also feel that they have innate ideology that they are superior to all others. This is why they are unable to coexist with other races effectively. Now we have a situation where in our lifetime white people will actually become the minority race and you would think that they would now be on the forefront in establishing more favorable relationships with blacks, Asians and Hispanics, however, they still seem as if they are inconvenienced by other races and wish to maintain an atmosphere of indifference and division, none of which will help their children in the future. Luckily, through our pain and suffering, many black, Hispanic and Asian people have turned to God for support and we know that there will be a time when the tables will turn (demographically) and we will be there to support and integrate with our white brothers and sisters. Anyone who has over opened a Bible will acknowledge that Jesus will come back to sort all of us out. He will come with rewards and punishments so please think before you speak or you will spend an eternity in Hell, which is far worse than the photo above. God bless all of my brothers and sisters of all races today!

      April 22, 2012 at 11:07 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.