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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. Jack

    Now Black people want to lynch white people. Will people ever learn!

    April 23, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • tintin

      that's right, I saw a white guy lynched last night

      April 23, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Jack

      TWITCHY.com

      Black people wanting to lynch

      April 23, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  2. palintwit

    Coming soon everyone... "The Palin Manifesto". Painstakingly handwritten by Sarah Palin herself in the same literary style that she uses on the palm of her hand.

    April 23, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  3. Matt

    The only major sources of racism in the US today are people like Mr. Cone, Jesse Jackson and others desperately trying to stay relevant. People of all races will be better off when they make a legitimate effort to live in harmony with others and stop feeling sorry for themselves over what happened to their grandparents.

    April 23, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • JM

      This is simply a story about a dark period in our history that continues to have bearing on life today (as seen by the awful comments made about Obama, Muslims (often no distinction is made between Muslim-Americans contributing to America and and true terrorists), etc.

      April 23, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • William

      I agree. There are those that perpetuate past tragedies, to reap benefits today.

      April 23, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Heidi

      So true. Living with anger and hatred for something in the past will only consume you. What about forgiving and moving on.

      April 23, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Larry Moore

      Your statement is very typical of a privileged white person who can never Empathize. You are very hypocritical and it's so sad you don't even know it. Its easy for you to sit on your high horse and make such proclamation, when even today "WHITE PRIVILEGE' is still very real in this NATION and you will never understand what it means to be BLACK in this country, not because you may be WHITE, but because you lack a very strong Human emotion called EMPATHY.

      April 23, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  4. alyarby

    CNN, howsabout SOMETHING ELSE? ANYTHING else? Could you get over this lynching fixation you have?

    The most trusted name in news? WRONG. Not for a long time. But with this lynching routine, you are not even A NAME in news. You are just a big fish with a putrid web site.

    April 23, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Larry Moore

      NO!

      April 23, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  5. Jack

    Hey did anyone see the lynch mob post at the DRUDGEREPORT? TOO CRAZY!!

    April 23, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  6. William

    This story is front page again? I am still not feeling guilty enough to vote for obama. His policies are destructive to America.

    April 23, 2012 at 11:41 am |
    • Alicia

      cnn is just stirring the pot, again, with their racist agenda.

      April 23, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • GodPot

      After our fourth Black president we might be able to say we are more on track to a representative America since right now about 12.5% of America is Black and we have had one black president in 44 which means we are at about 2% of Presidents not having been white males. It will be an even longer march to get to true gender equality since we would need about 50% of our Presidents to be women, so for the next 40 presidential cycles we should be voting for ethnic women for the office. It's at least as valid and they will do as good a job at it as ANY white male, and they really could not do worse.

      April 23, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  7. Mark

    @noXcuses
    As a white man with a black step mom and 2 bi-racial brothers I find your post offensive and IGNORANT. I am a supporter of the Tea Party. It doesn't take a Rocket Scientist to figure out that we cannot sustain the US Economy with less production. Furthermore, there are quite a few black, hispanic, repubs and democrats who attend Tea Party Rallys.

    April 23, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • Larry Moore

      You can have 10 step moms and 100 biracial kids, and you can still be a bigot! As a matter of fact, the likes of you scare me. "I have one black friend" and i cannot be a racist type. We all know what the tea party stand for and why it was formed, to claim its inception was not as a result of a backlash due to the fact that a Black president was elected would be rather foolish and ingenuous. So maybe you need to really have a rethink, because your been a part of the tea party alone is a contradiction, now i am not saying all tea partymembers are racist, but you can be guilty by association!

      April 23, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  8. yankeenot

    My god CNN...how many days can you keep up this stupid article on the front page?I am so sick of seeing that ugly mans face it makes me sick!

    April 23, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • DmJ

      I hate those people that killed those black guys too and all that stuff was bad but can't we ever move on? Seriously, it was a very small percentage of whites into the KKK and no one today is getting away with it so it belongs in a history book, not front page of CCC in 2012.

      April 23, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  9. JohnQuest

    Chance, not to worry, I was referring to the concept or the idea of Religion, not the people that believe in it. I do not want to hurt anyone, if my comment offended you please forgive me that was not my intention.

    I do think that the end of religion would be one less thing for us to fight about.

    April 23, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • Chance

      No problem.
      I'm with you; ready for this debate to be over with...

      April 23, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  10. Steve

    It's done with. We learned from it, now get over it. If he truly wants to make a difference then start by teaching the inner city AA men how to be real men and fathers like Christ is.

    April 23, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • JohnQuest

      Steve, no we have not learned anything yet, the same att-itudes that caused that, is now doing the same thing in Uganda, with the same predictable results (only this time their will be "gays" hanging from the trees).

      April 23, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  11. coder

    between the genocide that preceded these lynchings and the value of humans from the view point of the u.s. government

    why is this still a country to be worshiped? – if my forefathers were that kind humans, i would not accept their legacy

    That's like being proud to be a nazi

    April 23, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • Aaron Chaney

      Romney vs. Frankenstein (Obama)

      Put simply, better the devil you don't know. Vote Romney.

      April 23, 2012 at 11:40 am |
  12. lefty avenger

    Death and murder are the result. The Racist Southern republicans traded in a Rope for Gun. Ala George Zimmerman. The Murdering of innocents is what the right does.

    April 23, 2012 at 11:39 am |
    • JohnQuest

      lefty avenger, please be advised most of those guys were Democrats (Dixicrats, I think they called themselves)

      April 23, 2012 at 11:42 am |
  13. notacritique

    Article is perfectly timed with all the race bantering going on lol – CNN- aka 'National Enquirer'

    April 23, 2012 at 11:39 am |
  14. Heime

    “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.”

    Apparently this man Cone did not do his homework – Google "Duncan M. Gray, Jr." – Wikipedia definition.

    April 23, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • critical thinker

      what "sustained" theological attention did Duncan M. Gray, Jr. or any other white christian theologian give to lynching? have YOU done your homework? name the work? and the "theologian."

      April 23, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Heime

      @critical thinker – Because, Mr. "Critical Thinker", I already have a job, and it's not to educate fools like you. YOU look up the works of Duncan M. Gray, Jr. and report back to me with a full summary.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • Larry Moore

      Please answer the question the poster indicated below and stop answering a question with another question. Its common sense.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  15. joe

    Another example of the non-existent Christian God. After being subject to Christian based racism, wonder why he became a Christian himself.

    April 23, 2012 at 11:36 am |
    • Bob

      Because Jesus condemned all forms of hatred. He is love and He died for your sins because of His love for you.

      April 23, 2012 at 11:40 am |
    • JohnQuest

      Bob, unless you don't believe, then he sends you to a fiery pit to burn for all eternity. Thank God it's all made up or I really would be worried.

      April 23, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  16. soylentgreen

    Race is a social construct that we have created for our selves. There is NO genetic information that leads to an indication of race in our species. The concept of race allows people to draw lines in the sand, to categorize people based on the superficial allowing for snap judgements. Yet we continue to perpetuate race as a whole. Well educated people and not so well educated people alike draw the race line in the sand and ferociously defend/attack it. Here's the real question – what is it going to take for the manifestation of this social abomination of "race" to become a non factor in the world? Here's one thing I do know – it will take every man, woman and child to stamp it out.

    April 23, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • Steve

      Are you actually saying there are no DNA indicators as to someone's race? Ignorance abounds.

      April 23, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • soylentgreen

      Like wise there Steve. Take a look at the human genome project.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
    • soylentgreen

      Actually Steve, I think you may have misinterpreted what I said. Genes only manifest them selves in physical characteristics which are labeled by society as a particular race. Misinterpretation abound.

      April 23, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  17. seyedibar

    The problem here is still gods and religion, which are too easily used to sway crowds and justify disgusting violent behavior. Religion allowed for slavery to exist. We actually have a presidential candidate whose religion teaches that dark skinned people are full of sin. Smoothing race relations will be a simple task when you remove the primitive tribal theologies that seperate us. But this guy's answer is just more religion, more irrational fear and forced ethics without personal conclusions.

    April 23, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • Ann

      You my friend, couldn't be more wrong. Religion teaches you that Jesus loved EVERYONE! Why, because he made everyone!!! Religio, also teaches that "noone is better than anyone else".

      April 23, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  18. MetheBLKman

    America, the more things "change" the worst they remain the same!

    April 23, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  19. noXcuses

    Thank God that most americans (black, white, hispanic, repub, democrat see the tea party for what it is. The tea party types long for the days where they could take land from people that worked for it or kill black people if they couldn't steal land from them. They knew the local sheriff and judges so they knew they could get away with it. It's mighty funny that these are the same people that like to talk about hard work and personal responsibility(what a joke)...this is why these people have always hated the federal govt because the federal govt had to step in to stop them from crap like this since they all knew local authorities and some state authorities.

    April 23, 2012 at 11:23 am |
    • Ann

      Hey, guy, I'm white and my great great uncle fought in the civil war to free slaves! WHERE is you're gratefullness? HUH?

      April 23, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • phoodphite

      @Ann – Always nice to see someone resting on the coattails of one of their ancestors to justify their greed.

      April 23, 2012 at 11:42 am |
    • Katie

      Are you nuts??? I am a Tea Party member and I don't "long for the days" when I could take your land or kill you. I have many black friends and some black family members. I just want the corrupt Federal government out of my wallet.

      April 23, 2012 at 11:49 am |
  20. Simply Keep'n It Real

    Theologian Cone's life experience shaped HIS perspective after seeing it, living it, and smelling it? Lynching is a cruel act of hatred; how would that experience affect you?

    April 23, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • hmm

      Agreed; I fully concur that witnessing lynch mobs in action would certainly change one's perspective. It was an ugly, ugly chapter in American history.

      April 23, 2012 at 11:27 am |
    • Chris

      I don't know. How would my experiences as a white kid being called racial slurs with no recourse shape my view on certain groups?!

      April 23, 2012 at 11:33 am |
    • Val

      @Chris, how dare you try and compare the two. People were murdered! You poor, poor child.

      April 23, 2012 at 11:49 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.