home
RSS
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.”

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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. celucienljoseph

    Reblogged this on celucienljoseph, Ph.D.– Scholar, Intellectual, Cultural Critic.

    April 22, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  2. Geaorge Washington Carver

    Would it come amiss, my brethrens, to suggest to this brethren that he add to his diet that noble yet humble fruit of the fields, the mighty peanut, and thereby assuage his bitterness and calm his cinnamon-colored ass the fuck down a mite?

    April 22, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • Mr. Peanut

      Eat Me.

      😆

      April 22, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  3. kaleidescope world

    every color every hue, is well-represented by me and you.

    April 22, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  4. TheRationale

    I always thought it was odd that anyone of color in the US would embrace a religion that kept their ancestors enslaved for centuries and fought desperately to keep it that way.

    April 22, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
    • Onlyfoolafoolsaysthereisnogod

      Atheists have long been enslaved by their TOO MUCH pride and hatred.

      April 22, 2012 at 6:16 pm |
    • On the other hand

      Onlyfoolafoolsaysthereisnogod,

      Ah, the PRIDE of those who think themselves NOT fools...

      April 22, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
    • lol

      only a fool takes a book that says a man lived inside a fish's belly for three days seriously.

      April 22, 2012 at 6:25 pm |
    • JT

      I've also always been confused why blacks still continue to enslave themselves with their master's religion that their masters used to legitimize their crimes.

      April 22, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
  5. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    April 22, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • AtheismIsCrap

      But not atheists, they have a very hopeless case.

      April 22, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • distractedwriter

      And for blacks, no amount of praying can change the fact that whites won't let them into heaven. And don't go saying black people should do it for themselves....we all know whites must do for everything for blacks. Correct?

      April 22, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
  6. Plain Ol' Dreamer

    Today's theologians as in what this blog writes about, are antiquations of historical fondness and are corrupted via their Times or Ages! Today's breed of theologians are no more adept in their eyesights' futures! We have need of theosophies deferring from their currencies' flow-rates ever to ease our ways toward Armagedon's Ending! Life subsides and ebbs and flows and still the clock does ever tick tock tick tock! The global stages are ripened and yet are growing rotten inch by inches as the wagons do draw ever closer toward cliffs edge! Our worldly journey will never be a completion and yet the people will complete their individual journeys irregardless Life's Ongoings!

    Judging a person's word(s) is left up to one's own judgmentations! Calling someone out on their word(s) becomes likened to daily feudalisms of the sociialized constructivisms' decore, leaving the victor overcoming the vanquished as ever the case(s) may be! I find writing to be a way of non-conformity and it is a useful tool for my mindset's hierarchies! Without much fanfare needed for me to write issues upon, doing so keeps me in syncronicities' dependencies without being an intentional idiot as many who post here truly are! As the Mindfields go, they are awashed in the brainyards' ever-shifting momentumns of many multi-angularisms! Life beckons to be understood as well it should be!

    Hate scurries round the corners of every socialist construct! Hate's constructivists ever do rally the mobs in time's seasonalities! Hate will ever be the rotten concourse irregardless one's coloring! Hate is but a vileness in the hands of the embellished! Hate without scorn will ever be an attritional ember of crewlties' laments! Hate is one's alter of contentions!

    Is it really fair? Remembrances that is! How often does one need to be face-slapped before wanting to return the favor? The base roots of socialized constructivisms do tend one to never forgive that which needs to be shelved! For Christ's sake let go and just live one's life as one sees fit to so do without being manipulated and corn-holed by social slanderings of the media frenzied numb chuckers!

    Life is to be lived and in being lived does life lean and sway and teeter about! Sometimes Life falls down and is in need of being picked up yet as Life is downed some will kick it and spit upon it without a second's glaring to ever belittle the downed of Life! Life needs are what those are fed upon and even weened against! Try thereto and be as a forgiver to Life's needs! As the waters do wave in earnestness they are also ebbing and flowing along the shored lines with a regularity not to be deminished nor vanquished!

    April 22, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • shut up

      shut up

      April 22, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
    • 7Pillars

      "irrigardless"? DICTIONARY, pls.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
  7. someone

    White boy says "Inspiring article." I have no religion, but I live by the Golden Rule. Racism is truly sickening, and so is the photo. Horrible. Where is the 'humanity gene' in 'humans'? Where's the PEACE in the modern world??? Seems like Jesus, and countless others have died for no reason at all.

    April 22, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • distractedwriter

      You are so right.

      April 22, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      Dear Someone
      Jesus has died to set men(kind) free, but men loved darkness rather then light because of what's in their hearts! But He rose again, so that those who come to Him would become new creation in Him.
      Man has done his "best" on this earth. But when Christ Jesus comes He will bring righteousness and justice with Him, and all oppression will cease. It is evident that even the whole creation groans under the curse caused by the sins of mankind. But the day is comming when that curse will be lifted. And it won't come by man's achievements or efforts or but only by God's intervention!

      April 22, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  8. distractedwriter

    I dunno, from the looks of it maybe blacks are human and whites are robots? Whites are above all human emotion, after all.

    April 22, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  9. distractedwriter

    Since they think of blacks as animals, lynching blacks is easy. But then again, they treat their animals better...

    April 22, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  10. JUGGERNAUT

    HEHEHEHEHE

    LOOK AT THEM SMILING AND POSING FOR THE CAMERA, IT IS AS IF THEY WERE GOING TO A PICK NICK.

    April 22, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • distractedwriter

      Or a pick n-

      April 22, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  11. Plain Ol' Dreamer

    Truth,,,,,, ,,,,,, ,...,

    Life is to be lived and in being lived does life lean and sway and teeter about! Sometimes Life falls down and is in need of being picked up yet as Life is downed some will kick it and spit upon it without a second's glaring to ever belittle the downed of Life! Life needs are what those are fed upon and even weened against! Try thereto and be as a forgiver to Life's needs! As the waters do wave in earnestness they are also ebbing and flowing along the shored lines with a regularity not to be deminished nor vanquished!

    April 22, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  12. Sam Yaza

    "..... if God is God, why is He letting us suffer?”

    the tyrant God Spreads suffering because he needs followers the only way to gain converts is on the idea that the wold is only for of suffer. only those that bow to GOD is granted a reprieve and a life without suffering,.... its job security

    April 22, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  13. distractedwriter

    "...a black man couldn’t work for a white man and keep his manhood at the same time."

    If you think about it, this is the very reason why many blacks don't want to work even now.

    April 22, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  14. Black Six

    Gee, maybe he should take the lessons he learned and apply them to the George Zimmerman case. What Blacks are doing to him is comparable to a modern day lynching.

    April 22, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • distractedwriter

      Without the tree and the rope, of course.

      April 22, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • Moe Smith

      Shhh... applying logic isn't what this is about. this is about playing up to one's emotions. pandering to the lemmings of society and preying on their primal group-think mind which only reacts... not thinks.

      April 22, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • JUGGERNAUT

      COMPARABLE???? LMAO

      Zimmerman is in court, i am sure those blacks in the tree never saw a court house.

      April 22, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • distractedwriter

      Then there's those that have no emotions

      April 22, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  15. distractedwriter

    Some Christians say blacks don't go to heaven. Many whites believe this as the gospel truth. So what reason is there for a black person to believe in something that has nothing to do with them?

    April 22, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  16. jon

    The media keeps bringing up stories about race. If they would stop then the world would be a better place. This picture did not need to be displayed and only brings up bad memories and more racial conversations. When are they going to let it the hell go?!!!

    April 22, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • distractedwriter

      tell that to Nugent

      April 22, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • ryan

      Because if we let go of history we forget history. This is not something to be forgotten, but something to learn from and hopefully never repeat. Just because something is a "bad memory" doesn't mean we shouldn't talm about it. That's the fine line between patriotism and nationalism...

      April 22, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • Ed

      When will white Ameicans let racism and prejudice go. The upcoming Presidential elections are a good example.Most whites would rather vote against their interest for a person who rarely speaks anything close to the truth and changes positions based on his audience than vote for a black man who at the very least is trying to do what's best for the majority of Americans.

      April 22, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • distractedwriter

      Amen, Ed

      April 22, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      yeah that whats good for America no more freedom just security the president lies i knew that in 08 and i know that now the fact is you cant trust a Christian the believe rights are a privilege

      April 22, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • NamDebra

      Here's a question: why does it seem that the only race/ethnicity that is ever constantly accussed(or Lots of attention is drawn to) of being racist are 'white' people? I am African American & can definitly say that racism against whites, jews, & asians is alive and well among ppl of my race. The only problem is it seems to get 'swept under the rug/ignored. My parents forbid me to date a 'white'(or asian or jewish)boy when I was in high school & even spoke against it while I was in college, saying that if I got married to a 'white(asian or jewish)' guy or tried to bring children mixed with those races they would disown me! Here's the real kicker, the white boy I dated in H.S.(behind my parents back- I know not respecting my parents wishes, oh well) his parents absolutely loved me! Never for a second did my race seem to be an issue. Even though he and I went our seperate ways in college we still talk & I Still have a great relationship with his parents as well!

      April 23, 2012 at 4:50 am |
    • PRISM 1234

      @NamDebra
      You won't get many of them to face this issue! They rather ignore it, because it doesn't fit their agenda! I thank you for speaking up! I know it's the truth!

      April 23, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  17. Bernie

    James Cone 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.” A priest once asked a suffering penitent while pointing at a crucifix "Who do you see there?' She answered "Christ, crucified." He responded "Do you know who I see there?' "Who?" she asked. He answered "You."

    April 22, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  18. Heyzeus

    “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.”
    And
    "Jesus' primary message, he said, wasn't about getting people to heaven, but liberating people here and now from oppression – racial, economic and spiritual.”

    How does he feel about gay marriage? I guess that doesn’t count...

    April 22, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  19. distractedwriter

    Most of those people appear to be having fun with it, and this was right after they got out of church.

    April 22, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
  20. Desa

    As a Christian , ai am very disapointed that more white Christians did not follow the teaching of Jesus and help these people. I could have saved lives and changed things faster and less violently.

    April 22, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      they are following Christ, this is what Christ says to do to "pagans," (animals) cure the Disease, if the sick cant and don't want to be healed the only human thing is to put the "animal" Down Christ is a family hating narcissistic lier. he is not the messiah the tyrant God promised. he divides nations and destroys family.

      April 22, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45
Advertisement
About this blog

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.