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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. g

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

    that explains the current mentality of that segment.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  2. Boss

    FBI statistics show that 90% of all inter-racial crime in America is Black on White. Once again THAT IS 90%!!!!!
    A white person is 18 times more likely to be murdered by a black person than vice versa. Many ignorant PC liberals will claim that I am a racist for stating a mere fact. The media runs wild with the notion that Black people should live in fear of white people. This notion is a complete liberal fiction to keep black people in fear and in line for political reasons. Our culture is rotting to the core in political correct bias. The black community desperately needs accountability and an honest media that judges ALL RACES EQUALLY!!!!! Until then, the black community will continue their decline.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • LJ

      Where was that rationale when Black People were getting lynched? The justice system never stood up for what was RIGHT and a lot of them went FREE. There is NO EQUAL in America that you speak of! As of now, we have the following:
      1. Unfair Justice System (Whites are not punished at the same rate as Blacks)
      2. Profiling of Blacks by the police
      3. Voter ID laws to prevent Black voters
      4. Mistreatment of our President
      5. Being overlooked and passed over for JOBS (Unemployement for Blacks is around 20%)
      6. Laws that allow Public Funding Tax Dollars for Private and Charter Schools so White People can seperate
      7. Stand-Your-Ground Laws

      We are going back to the days of JIM CROW and the list goes on and on. It is pure RACISM at its core. Until things are FAIR for all, then there will always be INJUSTICE. Injustice anywhere is a threat to Justice everywhere. Until the White Community and Society stop their RACISM, stop the Reverse Discrimination claim and stop the hate filled talk on Fox News, It will never STOP! RACISM WILL DESTORY THE USA! Don't think you're ready for a RACE WAR! Are you sure? When those GOONS are loose, they are loose and nothing will stop'em.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  3. AB207

    ROBBIE...apparently you are having a hard time looking at that photo....you seem to have a lot of bitterness inside! FACTS ARE THE FACTS...the racist bigots are still in existence...alrighty! Like I said, its a difference between lynching for so called crimes or whatever vs lynching due to hatred! My race card is still in my purse, alright and it has not expiration date

    April 23, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • yankeenot

      Well good, you might be a CNN race baiter also.Most whites and blacks hate you for that.Good luck with your life!!!

      April 23, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  4. jay12312

    cnn you are pathetic. So sick of you and your boo hoo hooing for the black whiners in this country

    April 23, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • wisdom4u2

      You're the 'pathetic' ….and SICK one!

      April 23, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • AB207

      Jay12312, sorry that you are still in denial....CNN is just telling it like it was and still is...if anyone's whining, its some of you...I guess it's just hard to deal with life is it? Not being able to accept what was done and still being done....dragging someone behind a truck, all kinds of dirty cowardly deeds....some of you have always and will always be cowards. As I said, if some of you could get away with lynching now...you would try it, and who knows, its so many trees and woods in some areas that you never know....

      April 23, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • danielwalldammit

      A wonder who is the bigger whiner, the one who calls attention to a history of racist murder, or the one who complains about being reminded of that history?

      April 23, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  5. glu

    2 HUGE middle fingers up to this guy and his stupid 1960's BS

    April 23, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  6. Brent Jacobs

    What a self-seeking race-baiting blowhard. Get over it.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Nat Turner

      Tell the jews to "get over" the holocaust.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • blah

      Jews were executed by the millions, there is no comparison to the american blacks

      April 23, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • jay12312

      The jews should get over the holocaust and blacks need to get over slavery. We will never be able to move forward in this country until people get over the past and move on.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • danielwalldammit

      I wonder which is more unreasonable, someone angry over a history of violence and oppression, or someone bothered that anyone else would see fit to complain about such a thing?

      April 23, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Alex

      No one should EVER have to get over seeing people being murdered for acting like a proud human being. If that bothers you,you are on the wrong side of history bub.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  7. Tendofreak

    Well since the Treyvon and Zimmerman has gone a lil cold, CNN has to find something to stir the pot! Yes, blacks were slaves and segregated (as every race of humans has been as some point in history) So get over it please!! Thats all in the past! really! I've not known one black person that has been discriminated against in this day and age. Please dont say "Well I was stopped by the po-po one time and it was cuz I wuz black!!" ...get over it!" We've all been stopped by the police at one time or another. I'm wht and work for a blk man...makes twice as much as I do. I'm good with it too!! Let him have the worires and the early heart attack!

    April 23, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • AB207

      Tenofreak....what planet are you living on...did you just arrive on planet earth? Wow, you stated that you have not seen 1 black person discriminated against in this day and age, you sound like a complete FOOL! If you live on this earth, do you not work, do you not leave your home....I can't believe I am even replying to you idiotic statement....you've not seen any blacks discriminated against in this age and time....wow! Well, I guess it does make sense what you are saying, since you are not black...well, why don't ya try finding you a black costume and walk around for a day, o....k! Otherwise shut the %%#$ up!

      April 23, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  8. horf

    These kinds of stories need telling so we don't make the same mistakes in the future. Don't accuse someone of stirring up hatred just because you are uncomfortable with history. There is no need for white guilt, but we must never forget what happened.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • AB207

      Thanks

      April 23, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  9. yankeenot

    Just for the record, PRIMEWONK is stupid. Get in the real world!

    April 23, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • AB207

      whatever!

      April 23, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • Primewonk

      Actually, I have certified copies of IQ tests from a few years ago that show you are wrong.

      Any chance you could actually refute what I posted, instead of just spewing inane drivel?

      April 23, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
  10. DHumeSaves

    Theologians proclaim arguments that are nonsense, but are seen as logical points by their followers who are hungry for any reason to keep believing. After all, the first premise in many Christian minds is their religion is true. And anything that is unexplainable equates to the existence of God, that Jesus is God, that Jesus resurrected, that there is a Hell for non-Christians, and all these ideas correspond with each other!

    April 23, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      >>>"After all, the first premise in many Christian minds is their religion is true"

      So a group in society believes themselves to be right and true.... Isn't that really a human condition to hold that ones beliefs and values to be right?

      From the outside looking in couldn't you say this about everything from the Girl Scouts, to the Marines to the Senior Citizen bowling team?

      April 23, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • Theism is not healthy for your sanity and other reasonable things

      Exactly, a degree in theology is a degree in baloney, you may as well get degreed in homeopathy or cryptozoology.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • JohnQuest

      Mark from Middle River, just because "you" believe something is true doesn't make it so. (Except for the Marine Corps, we are always right no matter what).

      April 23, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  11. leer

    Instead of getting roiled over lynchings in the 1930's, maybe this "theologian" should concern himself with black on black crime, which is skyrocketing !! Indeed, I recall a recent comment that blacks kill more blacks in the US – than the kkk could ever have dreamed of. Keep it real !!

    April 23, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Nat Turner

      Since when did card carrying whites care about black on black crime? That's such a hypocrisy. I'm sure you all slap high-fives whenever you hear of such crimes. Find a realistic argument.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • danielwalldammit

      Today's diversion tactic, brought to you by.... someone who evidently believes it is impossible to be concerned about more than one form of social injustice.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • Alan

      Why do you believe he isn't concerned about black on black violence? (Because it's not directly addressed in the article or for some other reason?)

      April 23, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  12. LCPL AR

    Wow, thats just what we need. An influential news agency trying to immortalize a racist. If a white man wrote the same books as him but in a white parallel, it would be called disgustingly racist. This is the kind of thing that keeps the country segregated

    April 23, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • JohnQuest

      From what I read, he has a beef with an inst-itution not with a "group" of people.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • LCPL AR

      this is true, but if I were to say anything about the black church, it wouldn't go as lightly about his criticism of the white church. I'm not even religious.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • TB

      Why does a white person need to write a book when they control major of the country? The point is no one wants to admit that keeping Blacks down (and yes at times we do a good job of that ourselves) is still happening today. Why is it so hard for a Black who has earned his/her Masters degree to get a job in management? Its the same old story...they didn't interview well.....feeling and hearts have not changed towards blacks.....only time.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • danielwalldammit

      Because only a black racist would challenge white racists on the issue of race. Doing so clearly makes him a racist.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • fofo

      I know, fact and reality always hurts those who rather have their head stuck in the sand.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
  13. Emilie

    What in the world is wrong with you people?! We have to remember the past to make sure history doesn't repeat itself! Almost every comment on this page has made me sick to my stomach. I wonder if you closeted racists would be willing to say the things your anonymously posting on the internet out loud? You're a bunch of sick cowards.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Dennis

      Typical. If you disagree, you must be a racist. I'm not a racist, I'm just sick and tired of seeing this crap when it has nothing to do with ME! I was born in the 70's. I've never seen any of this stuff. I learned about it in High School and the point was taken and it's helped me become the man I am today. But to keep airing the dirty laundry...really, when does it stop? Get in a time machine and go back to 1930 and blame the white people back then...I have no association with them at all. Neither do you. Funny this stuff comes out before an election. Wake up.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      I disagree and I am a African American.... is this the same as if I disagree with the President I must be a racist or a Uncle Tom?

      April 23, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Grey

      It's not a matter of remembering or forgetting the past... it's about not being able to let go of the past, holding onto that anger. He may have really good merit at being upset for the actions of the past, but his continued hatred is just going to keep the racial division alive – which is much more likely to result in a repeat of past mistakes. Except this time, maybe the victim will be a different color. Still, hatred needs to die off, not give birth to an endless cycle.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:11 pm |
    • phoodphite

      I agree. I think the bigger social problem facing us today is the convergence of overpopulation and the information age, and at a time when the social education of youth is on a steady decline. When a child spends more and more time in a world that is not real, and is not socially educated to boot, then it is going to be much easier for them to a. join in with a group that wants to disenfranchise some other group; and b. spout off with little forethought knowing they will not be held accountable for what they say.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • TomCom

      A black man named Mark?

      April 23, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Primewonk

      Grey wroe, " it's about not being able to let go of the past, holding onto that anger. He may have really good merit at being upset for the actions of the past, but his continued hatred is just going to keep the racial division alive"

      So what about the almost half of all republicans in Mississippi who said that interracial marriage should still be illegal? How should people feel about that? Those numbers aren't from 60 years ago. They're from a poll last April.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  14. Dick

    We can say many things about James Crone, but as a white, we can't really understand his agony. Those lynchings were modern day "Good Fridays" and just as the pious Jews led the cries for Jesus' crucifixion, pious white Christians led the cries for these lynchings. We need to accept responsibility for those sins of our white Christian fore bearers and work to ;ive our lives loving our "neighbors" as Jesus taught.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • daveinla

      u r such a Dick

      April 23, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  15. Edward

    It is no longer 1940 or prior – so get over it. A lot of evil happens to a lot of people – they get over it and move on without looking to repeat their everlasting "outrage" to anyone that will listen.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  16. Dennis

    Really, two days in row you make this the front page? There's no money to be made by Big Media or Politicians if racial tensions did subside.

    Well guess what CNN, I'm over it. It was in the past, we will learn from the lesson, but we will not let you keep bringing up 80 year old garbage.

    We laugh and shake our heads at other countries who have been fighting over injustices that occured 100's of years ago and we will not let you do that to us. We are more intelligent than that.

    There's always someone out there trying to point out our differences or bring up injustices that occured WELL before I was born and somehow relate it to what's going on today. 1865 was different than it is today. 1930 was different than it is today. 1960 was different than it was today. I'm living in 2012...when will you finally live in the present??

    April 23, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  17. Susan

    It's terrible what happened regarding the lynchings and brutal murders in the 50's and alot has been written and produced about it, but it's time to come out of the past and look forward to the future. We learn by our mistakes, and I know they were terrible mistakes. I also grew up in Arkansas and I never saw anything like Cone did but I lived in the city and not the country.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  18. songdude

    let it rest in peace. REALLY? get on with your life. Your old enough to understand and know what happened. Its a different world now, you make it what you want it to be. Stop blaming the past for things you cant get done now. Move on. If you have a solid foundation and a strong faith in God, then you are doing well, or suppose to be.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  19. blake

    James Cone. Hate filled racist. Sadly you have become what you despise in others.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  20. Robbie

    FACT: The English killed my Welsh ancestors and stole our land.
    FACT: There isn't an Englishman alive today who did this to my ancestors. I have many English friends who have greatly enriched my life.
    FACT: Any missed opportunities or failure to thrive on my part is due to my own shortcomings or whim of fate, not to any past or present Englishman.

    Blacks: Your race card expired in 2008. Time to get with it and stop making excuses/blaming others. Own your shortcomings.

    April 23, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Agrav8td

      AMEN to Robbie! Thank you!

      April 23, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • joe

      There are people alive today that took part in lynchings. This is not something that happened in the distant past.

      Perhaps your grandfather – you seem very defensive on this subject. At least you have the internet forums to participate in your virtual lynchings of people since the real thing was taken away from you in your grandfather's time.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:35 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.