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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. 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 11:44 am |
  2. nofear

    most "theologians" and "pastors" are in the 'business' of selling what their 'customers' want, period.

    April 22, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  3. J

    I see no difference between the behavior of individuals who would participate/watch a lynching than in the behavior of individuals Nazi Germany. Awful.

    Unbelievably that these people would consider themselves Christians.

    April 22, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  4. MIKE JONES

    CHRISTIANS BLEWUP BLACK CHURCHES IN THE SOUTH------CHRISTIANS

    April 22, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  5. MIKE JONES

    THEY CALLED THEMSELVES---------CHRISTIANS---------–NOT MUSLIMS

    April 22, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  6. MIKE JONES

    THE TALIBAN LOVE THIS ARTICL BECAUSE AMERICA IS A RACIST COUNTRY FULL OF EVIL DEVILS

    April 22, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  7. MIKE JONES

    RAISE BAITING IS WHEN A BLACK MAN IS DENIDE A JOB BECAUSE OF HIS COLOR

    April 22, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • 1gadawg

      not because he doesn't know how to spell?

      April 22, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • shut_up

      why wasnt this brought up in black history month??
      why is every month about blacks??
      good grief, your like a cancer that wont heal. get a job, life, and pray to the one and only GOD. if you keep this up your blood pressure will rise. see a quack or something but we are tired of this.
      you got your black prez and how did that work for you. he took care of himself but the blacks that voted for him are worse off. obama divides and that is how he keeps his base. dont be stupid..............

      April 22, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • shut_up

      you might be denied a job because you cannot spell! you dont have to spell to sling burgers. shut up and go collect your check.................

      April 22, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Lisa

      Where is this – was it your education or becuase you are a negative person. I'm sure it's not because of your skin... My job has black people in very high positions and they are not light skined blacks.. They do have education and a the me
      n don't have hair down their backs...

      April 22, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  8. riley

    There is no race bating in this article, but we do have some hard truths. Most White churches did not speak out against slavery or Jim Crow and those that did refused to allow blacks down to alter call. This is my first time reading about this man, Mr. Crone, but u better believe I am going to read more of his work.

    I like how he takes the black church to task for singing and talking about wealth instead of social justice. Justice takes many forms and the ways to that social justice also remedies many social ills in the community.

    April 22, 2012 at 11:38 am |
  9. Zavandy

    Accept it was wrong, and move on. Be better person by living your life knowing that horrid past is IN the past. Yes, of course racism still exists and always will. But do what YOU can do, learn from the past, and don't repeat it!

    April 22, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  10. MIKE JONES

    TO FORGET REALITY IS TO DIE A FOOL

    April 22, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Happy ShockSunday Morning

      Still Tippin on 44s, Mr. Jones?

      April 22, 2012 at 11:37 am |
  11. MIKE JONES

    IGNORANT FOLKS FORGET----–I NEVER WILL

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

      Jews do not forget so why should people of color forget. It should be used as a lesson to build tighter communities.yep, I know that last bit is a bit of a dream.

      April 22, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  12. montefarst

    The African American writer who wrote this is an anti-religious black radical autonomist. John Blake is allowed to write whatever he wants to and get away with it, that's what a news organization that constantly just makes stuff up and distorts all reality does. The funny thing is that the platform that John is given to air his grievances is proof in itself that he is free to say and do whatever he wants but somehow he is being oppressed. You old men are the ones that destroy our future.

    April 22, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  13. Sharon

    This was a great article. I wanted to know more. I hope more people read and enjoy it like I did. Anyone that believes that this article incites racial separation is just afraid of the truth. Let’s face it you are afraid. It's so sad to see how many people want to sweep the past under the rug. Let's face it; what happened in the past is why we still have racial injustice, discrimination and reverse discrimination in some cases today. If we don't address the past we will never be able to move forward as a country. Too many people want believe that keeping silent is the way to racial harmony. If that was true then why aren’t there more minorities writing these comments?…think about it. Ignoring OUR past and its effects is just a temporary solution. We have to talk about it, learn about it, understand and care about each other to heal. All of the sarcasm and negative hatred that’s exposed here doesn’t solve anything. I’m willing to move in the other direction.

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

      Amen.

      The truth is the truth.

      It's sad that Sunday morning is still the most segregated time of the week.

      April 22, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • I wonder

      J,
      "Sunday morning is still the most segregated time of the week."

      Don't you think that a lot of the reason for that is cultural?

      Blacks think that the white church services are boring. (They are right.)

      Whites think that the black church services are overly emotion-driven and raucous. (They are right.)

      April 22, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  14. MIKE JONES

    THE REAL WAR

    April 22, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  15. MIKE JONES

    GUNS

    April 22, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  16. Brian Richards

    I narrowly escaped lynching as a child. I recall how prominent local political, religious and law enforcement officials discussed my fate. I was beaten, tied and abandoned deep in a snake- and alligator-infested swamp. Those men were never punished. Their values live on today in soy ther Republican politics. those who deny that truth are racists and liars. These cowards rarely admit their racism when out from behind the masks of their pointy white hoods.

    April 22, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • Realdirect

      Well said B.R.,well said.

      April 22, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Peace Lilly

      I hope you can forgive and get past that horror. It will only make your life better, not your tormentors. Their time will come in the end. Meanwhile, know that not everyone agrees with what happened to you. I certainly do not. I would likely be the kind of person to die with you defending you from people like that. That is my message to you...there are many who would object to that now, so we HAVE made progress in may ways.

      April 22, 2012 at 11:56 am |
  17. KeninTexas

    "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." I guess this gives us a clue where he developed his racism. White or black, racism is still wrong regardless of whatever excuse you try to use for it.

    April 22, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • J

      Duh.

      Let's see: if you work for a white man and the white man treats you like a dog, how can you keep your manhood (your sense of self/worth)? His father had courage.

      April 22, 2012 at 11:34 am |
  18. winstonsmith

    So any article that deals with racism is suddenly race baiting? This is not a race baiting article. Anyone who says that has no idea what that means. Racism has become such a phony word thrown about, we really have forgotten where we've come from. We're only one generation away from this stuff. Same goes for the Holocaust. It's like people hit their limit in the 90s, but rather than expanding their horizons to see how complex and widespread prejudice is and how it works and always makes the dominant class into "victims", we're just going to a "GAWD I KNOW THIS ALREADY" and meanwhile America becomes more and more divided and anything with the remotest bit of compassion suddenly becomes "libtard ideology" from a bunch of angry, guilty weak poor conservative people.

    April 22, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  19. White Guy

    Why are we talking about the angriest, one of the most racist people?
    Why are you displaying a picture of something done 80 years ago?
    Is there not enough racial tensions in the US as it is?
    CNN, you disgust me with your race baiting!

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

      It's called history. It's called the truth.

      If we don't remember/know the past, how will we ever learn?

      Now, "we" hate Muslims and continue to make racially-motivated comments against other races.

      We haven't learned much.

      The church is supposed to be different. Christ taught love, forgiveness, mercy...service to others. He taught us that we are supposed to love others better than we love ourselves.

      I don't know many people who behave this way.

      April 22, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Peace Lilly

      If we bury our head in the sand, a truck is going to drive by and knock it off. If you want race baiting, go look at some of the commentary on the Zimmerman/Martin case and then explain why CNN would let that go unchecked day after day after day. It is most disturbing and without a doubt disgusting!

      April 22, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • wrong side of the bed

      Head on back to Fox.They probably have a blog defending George Zimmerman, who was just standing his ground against a vicious hoody wearing gangsta.I say probably, because I don't like to expose myself to fairness and balance.

      April 22, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • Peace Lilly

      wrong side of the bed? Not sure what you're trying to say. What I am talking about are the posts on stories of Zimmerman that are so blatantly racist that it is unbelievable! I don't like what I see here, why on Earth would I go to Fox?

      April 22, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  20. Furious Styles

    Some would say that you are ONLY responsible for what "you" do. And in this case with this photo and many others like it, you can see nobody did "anything".

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

      Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.

      April 22, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Chuck

      I'll bet many of the people that commit hate crimes today have relatives in this disgusting picture. Apples don't fall far from the tree in most cases.

      April 22, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
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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.