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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. JG

    those guy hanging were CRIMINALS.

    April 22, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • momoya

      Are you excusing those people who carried out the hangings?. Due process wasn't necessary in those cases because...??

      April 22, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • J

      A justice system in which people hate all black people is not a justice system....because it would be impossible for fairness (justice) to exist.

      The people watching the lynching and taking away bodyparts for souvenirs...I think they were the criminals. That's evil.

      April 22, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • jim

      You have a choice in America to be the kind of person you want to be. Let's judge everyone as individuals, and not for what their ancestors did. Some white Americans don't want to discuss the past because of the shame they feel. Most people who graduated from American high schools are aware of the terrible crimes of the past, but they want to move on so that they can live their lives in peace....

      April 22, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  2. The Dude

    Slowly but surely you people will be a taint stain on Americas History.
    The South is being changed. They are even getting rid of the hick southern accent in many schools in the south.

    April 22, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • jim

      That first sentence sounds remotely SS.

      April 22, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  3. tom b

    If CNN cares as much as it potrays about the plight of black people why do they tellingly ignore that they are far more likely to be a victim of violent crime from a black suspect that a white nutjob or a racial "profiler"? Its sad how CNN tries to enlighten the masses with the subtext that black people should be treated like babies who are incapable of taking responsibility for their actions. How ironically insulting.

    April 22, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  4. MIKE JONES

    THATS WHY I LOVE MY MANY GUNS

    April 22, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  5. Robert

    What did the two guys hanging in the photo do? It would be interesting to find out why folks were lynched. A fair trial is preferable to lynching, but lets be realistic. Many things people do today and are executed or sent away for life would result in a lynching 100 years ago. Let not forget that in many cases white and black people were "hung" for crimes committed.

    April 22, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • wrong side of the bed

      A fair trial in the(not so old)South was impossible for Blacks.Some were beaten and burned out just for looking at a white girl.It's important for Americans to discuss race at this time because they must decide whether to re-elect their first black president.If they think this election is not partially about race then they would be wrong.Better to iron out differences on-line than to take it to the streets.These subjects are a part of American heritage.It must be discussed at this critical moment in the history of this great country.Like it or not.Thanks to CNN for keeping the civil discourse alive.I'm Canadian,I love the US and I travel there often,but sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees.!PEACE and stay cool.

      April 22, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  6. dreamer96

    It seems like this election with our first black President and many GOP presidential candidates announcing their run for the Oval Office, and many candidates visiting Charleston South Carlina, the site of the first angry shots being fired between the slave owners of the south, and the industrialists of the north, is a second replay of the Civil War..

    We seem to be still fighting that war...A war where the Rich Slave owners of the South left their slaves safely behind the battle lines, safe from the angry firing guns, and traded them for the common white Southerner...and the common southerners died by the thousands for the blacks...Yes some slaves may have dug ditches for their masters too..Ironic they helped their own masters fight to keep them slaves...

    And in the North the industrialist traded their white and black workers for the average white Northerner who also fought for the free blacks that mostly stayed safe behind the lines too....Yes some were trained as soldiers, and fought and died in the front lines..but not many...

    On both sides, the Whites died by the thousands for the Blacks..Ironic...and the Rich and Wealthy simply traded one large group of servants for another..and rarely put their own lives at risk......

    And now many of the factories are in the south, unlike before 1860..but many have gone from the north, and the south, have move out of our country altogether..and the Wealthy and Rich are still fighting it out..for control...and the servants too..

    April 22, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  7. Rod C. Venger

    If you look at the history of lynching, whites, indians and mexicans were lynched in far greater numbers than blacks. One reason was horse thievery. Being a horse thief meant you were depriving someone of their life or livelihood. And those people were lynched on the spot when caught. For indians and mexicans it was usually over land and it's true too that most weren't lynched but shot. Nonetheless it's there in our history. Blacks see lynching as something unique to them when it was not...though they were the only ones lynched merely for being black.

    April 22, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Dangle66

      your last sentence says it all

      April 22, 2012 at 11:29 am |
    • Robert

      ".though they were the only ones lynched merely for being black"

      Were they????

      April 22, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  8. Lisa

    ok, what' s next... Don't even want to read this one... I'd rather he stay angry than waste my time on things that happen before my time...

    April 22, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  9. Lavidnass

    Why are white folks so unwilling to admit that the lynch crowds were their parents? Do they think that these people just existed for the lynching event? ask your relative where they stood on the issue at the time.
    And remember what Sean Hannity tells us, that our morals come from our parents teaching; Sins of the Father!

    April 22, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • jim

      You are responsible for what you do and not the acts of others.

      April 22, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Rod C. Venger

      You and Hannity are both wrong. People can choose. I chose, many years ago, NOT to be like my father. I recognized certain traits in him when I was a teen that I knew were wrong. Some were illegal too. Racism was never one of Dad's problems but he had plenty of others to dislike and to this day we don't speak. I see him of everything I wouldn't want to be and he sees me as a failure because I rejected 'his' teachings. I've run a number of business, was never unemployed, owned a home...and while I was never close to being as well off as he is, that was never important to me. Fact is, I'd rather be a failure than be like him.

      April 22, 2012 at 11:34 am |
    • jim

      You have a choice in America to be the kind of person you want to be. Just because our ancestors did horrible things doesn't mean we have to do the same. Let's judge everyone as individuals. Punish the racists.

      April 22, 2012 at 11:38 am |
    • Peace Lilly

      Sorry, not my parents. Nor my grandparents. I cannot think of a single person in my family who spoke badly of anyone, much less african americans. So please, for the sake of all, don't "group" all whites into one mindset. It's just not true.

      April 22, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
  10. SpellIt

    I did not read the entire article. The photo was enough for me. It was a tragic scene and I noticed more than half the crowd was either bemused or enjoying the scene. The crowd really doesn't care in whatever color it is in.

    April 22, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  11. Dangle66

    People, all these websites care about is the buzz created by a story. By buzz, I mean how much attention it draws. They judge this by the amount of comments an article draws. They keep putting up these type of stories BECAUSE you keep responding to them. If you don't like an articles content... STOP responding to them.

    April 22, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  12. smh

    I didn't read anyone say AARON YOU LYNCHED BLACK PPL!! AARON YOU DONT LIKE BLACK PPL!! AARON "YOU" MADE THE BLACK LADY GIVE UP HER BUS SEAT!! No one has said that it's your fault or any other white persons fault this happened in the past... but you defending yourself as if we were shows you might have some issues yourself with it or feel some type of guilt for it. Normally when ppl know nothing has to do with them, and it is actual history that is being discussed then they read it and move on, not talk trash about "bringing up the past" and how black ppl won't let YOU get past what happened. But I will say that white people damn sure don't want to be associated with this type of history. What I can tell by your responses and most the white ppl on here that don't want to ever hear anything about the racist roots of this country, is that your PRIDE is too much to accept it was WRONG and should have never happened. White ppl have an "air" about themselves, as if they are better than other races, deny it if you WANT but it's worldwide. Whites think they are superior in everyway which they should with the way they have killed in the name of their race.. Hitler killed millions of Jews.. no complaints when those stories are posted. So basically, accept that this did happen, accept the fact that no one BLACK is blaming YOU personally, but also accept the fact that this is America's history as wrong as it was. In order to learn and grow you have to admit and accept the facts. This country will never heal because white ppl are too busy trying to defend themselves as you are doing, for no reason at all... accept guilt you feel for your race doing these awful things to black ppl. I mean for real, get over YOURSELF!

    April 22, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  13. Truthteller

    Why do many Whites refuse to look back into US history just 50-80 years ago when it comes to racial injustice. However, they are always so glad cite Lincoln and Washington, etc (more than 200 years back).... Could this be just simple DENIAL – The other races will never truly trust Whites, if all they choose to remember are the good historical moments. The othe races will NEVER forget the evils and injustices their forefathers had to endure – this is a defense mechanism to ensure that history is never repeated. So to the really honest Whites (and I do have some White friends who are transparent about their total history), please drown out these History-Deniers and Apologists; so that we as a whole can truly move on as a nation.

    April 22, 2012 at 11:21 am |
    • cscann

      History also teaches us that Lincolin wanted to send slaves back to Africa.

      April 22, 2012 at 11:30 am |
  14. Happy ShockSunday Morning

    No need to read any more threads on this today; there will be white idiots who make their usual idiot comments, there will be “gangstas” who make similarly uneducated comments in reply to balance the white fools. There will be wide middle-ground fools like me and you who come back and read these posts and wonder the what and why of exactly a multi-billion dollar is using their internet presence to “shock” this type of message to the masses out on a Sunday morning. What does this all accomplish except further divide a country that is already a complete train wreck. Congratulations CNN to keep the boil festering. I read CNN a lot and this is really, really, really a disturbing and sad use of media power. Yes, I’m conservative, and I try to watch both CNN, and Fox, and other news sources and really try to keep an open mind to other opinions. But this really one really disgusts me. PS: Being an ex-Hoosier, thanks so much for mentioning Marion, Indiana specifically in the hanging picture, but maybe I shouldn’t mention that because now someone will think I’m racists because I am white and I was born near there.

    April 22, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Happy ShockSunday Morning

      another pre-coffee typo...said "why of exactly a multi-billion dollar"; meant "why of exactly a multi-billion dollar company"...well I hope someone is reading this inside CNN...

      April 22, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • cscann

      I hear you loud and clear. I have the same thoughts. Media(both sides) putting their twist and watching the frenzy! I think its time we went back to the news slots of thirty minutes in the morning, thirty minutes in the evening, followed by world news.

      April 22, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • cscann

      If your going to look back at history, dont forget Lincolin wanted to send slaves back to Africa.

      April 22, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • cscann

      OOPS, wrong person. PRE-COFFEE!

      April 22, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  15. jen

    as a white women-i too am so angry, at my parents at the world at my kids at my pets but mostly at god...i feel no hope no happiness no love & all i want is to sleep & never ever wake up. to die means i either go to hell=which is worse or i go to heaven=i have to listen to gods excuses. more than anything i need to be released from this anger, because it hurts, physicaly, mentaly & spirituly. soory once again. too sad in tulsa

    April 22, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • jen

      sorry for the missed spelled words, no pill for dyslexcia & i forget to list i am angry at myself!

      April 22, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • JohnL

      for all those who don't know liberals well, this is designed for the general election. Inciting racial tensions by the left is key for obama to divide the country

      April 22, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • jim

      Remember, you are only responsible for what YOU do.

      April 22, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • wrong side of the bed

      Try dropping the angry,judgemental,vindictive,manipulating god-thing from your life.Worth a shot eh?You can always go back.Just sayin', and good luck!

      April 22, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • J

      http://peacewithgod.jesus.net/

      April 22, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  16. 7Pillars

    'PERENIAL2', 'JUST A GUYS', 'SNSCORPIAN', 'LIMBAUGH IS A LIBERAL' – WOW, the sad little Armchair Warriors are reading from the same Script today! So far these geniuses have established that they are TOLD what to think, rather than thinking for themselves, and what they think is:

    THAT AN ARTICLE SAYING "Lynching is Terrible" IS 'RACE-BAITING' and that 'those people' commit all the crime, leech off the rest of us and don't stick around to be a Parent.

    Such massive Brainpower all in one Blog! Too bad they are all reading from the same script; I'd love to read Original Thoughts from these Brain Surgeons!

    April 22, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  17. jim

    Let's not punish the sons for the sins of the fathers.

    April 22, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • The Dude

      If the sons are as trashy and backwoods as their father, they deserve nothing but contempt.

      The South is being changed. They are even getting rid of the hick southern accent in many schools in the south.

      Slowly but surely you people will be a taint stain on Americas History.

      April 22, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • jim

      Who is "you people?"

      April 22, 2012 at 11:29 am |
  18. cscann

    Kelly Tilghman used the term lynching, in referance to how poorly Tiger was loosing in a golf match. NOBODY THOUGHT ANYTHING OF IT UNTILL THE MEDIA GOT THEIR HANDS ON IT. Evan, Tiger, who is a great friend of hers.

    April 22, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  19. jpw2010

    Here we go again with another CNN race baiting article.

    April 22, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  20. longtooth

    It's good to be angry. It's good to examine where your anger comes from. It's good to know that anger doesn't hold onto you, that you hold onto it. It's good to let it go.

    April 22, 2012 at 11:14 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.