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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.”

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. fofo

    "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."
    I personally think if there is a God, which I don't think there is, he probably looks like a chameleon. The poor old man has to keep changing his color, in order to support those who are suppressed. I just don't understand the evil doers who think God is on their side when they do or think evil.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
  2. Chuck

    Media got its new meat of a story. Zimmerman-Martin case. Nice.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  3. Thirdeye

    Why it is that Black people are always told to forget about what happened to them and to forgive, but the Jews and the survivors of the holocaust are never told to forget what happened to them. Sound like a double slandered to me. Never forget what happen to us as Black people. How can you forgive a people when they have never asked for forgiveness nor did anything to make right a wrong?

    April 23, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • Wakeupamerica

      6 Million vs. 10K
      Killings down by a whole country/government vs. killings down by a small group of inviduals

      Ever since these crimes, whites have been trying to make things right. At the same time that blacks are attacking whites at a rate of 18:1. Get real !!!

      April 23, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • TDogg

      I have done nothing for which to ask forgiveness, nor have my ancestors. If you are requesting an apology from me simply because my skin color is similar to people a 100 years ago who committed crimes against your ancestors, then you are just as racist as you claim me to be.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:42 pm |
    • fofo

      I agree with you. Personally I think beating the dead meat by the Jews is kind of too much and has caused resentment by those who feel it's not their problem and that they should not pay for the sins of their fathers. History of human beings is full of shameful moments. The ways to deal with these things is learn from it and not let it to ever happen again.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Chuck

      When you think about Jews, you think smart, business people, with lots of money and thus massive contribution to the society, When you think of Indians (Brown), you think about doctors, Computer Engineers, but when you think about Black people, besides the president and few handful of individuals, one tends to think about certain group of people you wouldn't feel comfortable dealing with. Blacks are the blacks’ biggest enemies.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Ryan

      Well isn't that a generalization as well

      I am white, of Irish and Norwegian ancestry. I am a second and third generation born, respectively. My families settled in the northeast and Minnesota area. So if I look at my family tree, while they were here when much of this racism was going on in the last century. So while certainly, white people were guilty of horrible actions, many 'white' people, had nothing to do with it and their ancestors weren't even in this nation yet.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • Chris

      Why should my generation of white people apologize for what white people before me did?? Was it horrible? YES! Did I do it!? NO! Its the same as asking all black people to apologize everytime a black person kills a white person!

      April 23, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  4. Wakeupamerica

    The white people that did these horrible crimes are all dead. White people since then have been trying to improve race relations ever since. Whites are sooooooo sick of hearing about these issues instead of all of the progress that has been made and are sooooooo sick of issues like this getting over blown by the media when TODAY'S sky rocketing BLACK on WHITE crime is never talked about. Keep it coming so Romney wins by a land slide as eventually even the arrogant white liberals will start figuring out what is happening.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
    • h1

      Lynching is current US History. There are still lynchings that occur in Mississippi and other deep south states.
      You can search google news and find very recent articles. There was a lynching in mississippi as recent as 2010.
      There was a lynching in Florida 2003. Search google news.
      Police will often say it's "suicide." If the police rule it's homicide, then they'll definitely never admit that it was a racial motive behind it in most cases. but there are still lynchings that occur in Deep South. The authorities just cover it up.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • James

      That is precisely the problem. Whites "have been sick of hearing about racism" since racism supposely ended. That's Cone's entire beef. White supposed Christians never discuss racism and injustice. They place their own concerns and feelings above others, which goes directly against all of Scripture. They are tired of hearing about it and blacks are tired of experiencing it. The reality is not so much about what whites don't like to hear as much as it is about the idea of what they might have to give up. Whites are by far the most evil hearted people God ever created and many will see hell in the afterlife for their silence, lynchings, complicity and arrogance against God's creation.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
    • CarmenSo

      how do you know they are all dead?

      April 23, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  5. SlaveWorld

    All of this grief for both races because of the 1%. That's right, only about 1% of whites owned slaves and another fact is that slaves from africa were sold by their own people to all the races of the world. And look at us today, tearing each other down over something so long ago and perpetrated by small groups on both sides.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  6. Arlen Cooper

    "one of the world’s most influential theologians." Never heard of him, have ya'll?

    April 23, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  7. Vince

    It's really hard to look at that picture. A bunch of people smiling while senseless murders were committed. Disgraceful. I can see how Cone was angry. However, the Jim Crow era is gone. Wouldn't it make more sense to bury the hate and anger?

    April 23, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Wakeupamerica

      How many black people have been standing by and smiling at black on white crime that is happening TODAY !!!!!

      April 23, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Babs

      NEVER FORGET!!!!!

      April 23, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
    • CarmenSo

      You try growing up like that and see how easy it is to forget. Maybe we should start telling Holocaust survives that it's time to just forget about what happened.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
  8. Dingo

    How can we move on if people can't get over something that no one a live had anything to do with. Until you stop talking about race there will always be racism and maybe that's what people want. What better crutch to have to blame everything that goes wrong with your life on. That way your failures are never your fault...

    April 23, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  9. Jack

    IS THIS TODAYS LYNCHING?

    youtube- Black Mob Beats, Strips & Robs Tourist As Onlookers Laugh in Baltimore

    April 23, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  10. pmn

    What an awful, animalistic and horrific situtation of these young women and men years ago. Matter of fact, I wanted to throw up after the description. However, why still be angry and stuck? I believe the author must let go of his anger and get past the history of what has happen. My grandmother always told me forgiveness is key otherwise you give your perpetrator the power which they have won. From his writing appears to still segregate himself from whites...why? Do you continue the tread or overcome to join together? Let go of the past and move forward with the future to make it a better tomorrow.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • Logic

      Young people joking about racism as they do in these comment sections probably are a few of the reasons why he is pursuing his message with conviction.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  11. angelika

    Anger does not soften your heart. Anger makes you the sadest person in the world. Stop being angry, cause it causes you the person to be sick inside..... I feel if you are a true Christian you need to learn to forgive. Let the anger pass. That is the only way to true Freedom!

    April 23, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • pmn

      That's right..does no good to harbor resentment and negative feelings about white people. We are not those people in the picture watching, pointing and smiling. It sickens me it happened at all.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
  12. achepotlex

    I wonder why he chose to become a Santaologist.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  13. glorydays

    and the Internet has become the new white hood.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • ProudAfAmerican

      Amen to that. All these folks who get on the internet and anonymously post the most racist comments, then turn around and smile in your face at work are COWARDS!

      April 23, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  14. Rev. Dr. Helen M. Bolden-Rogers

    The book of Joshua specifically commands that a memorial be established so that coming generations know of their divinely led deliverance. The people are admonished to 'always remember and never forget.'
    Just as hatred bred of ignorance fueled and fanned Holocost flames can and will never be forgotten, so, historically and honestly the physical, mental, and emotional devastation of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" for Blacks in American society.
    Thank God for Dr. Cone and others with Joshua voices.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  15. palintwit

    That photo could be any number of things. A teabagger rally, a birther rally, baggers tailgating at a nascar event, Saturday night at the trailer park, or even baggers demonstrating in front of the White House.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  16. Dl

    Jesus was lynched

    April 23, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • K I&I

      Yes he was, and by the same inhumane people; and we are still talking about it today. We should keep talking about it like we talk about Jesus, until all hateful people are removed from the earth.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  17. henfer

    Now we are going to lynch Zimmerman. Its not about justice. Its about carrying around a ton of bitterness and passing it along to a new generation.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • ARV

      He killed another human being and is being tried in a court of law. There will no pictures of barbequed mexicans. Unlike this account of the torture and murder of townsfolk

      April 23, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  18. daveinla

    CNN pushing the race issue again and again and again...I can see Anderson Cooper interviewing a 9 year old that has just won the national spelling bee..."Bobby, I want to talk a moment about racism at your school..."

    April 23, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Diane

      I agree. All CNN does is always push the race thing over and over. That is one of the reasons why "African American" people use the race card so much to get what they want instead of taking some accountability for their own choices in life.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • Logic

      Do you see the image? Looks like two african american men brutally murdered at the pleasure of public entertainment for white people. Let us not forget another reason for the lynching, to instill fear in anyone who is not white. Just because your family may have been involved, doesn't make it justified action to protect your ancestors.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • ARV

      You dont get it. You saw a black man and race being discussed and your reaction was "race card". This is an account of why this black man is angry. How he worried about his father being tortured and killed by a very real white mob that posed a very real threat to his entire family. This is about another human beings experience. Get over yourself and take a look at the world. Everything isnt about a power struggle, sometimes its about being a living human being and empathizing with another. I hope one day when your self absorbed wits leave you, you get in touch with what it means to be alive on this earth.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  19. Reality

    ONLY FOR THE NEWCOMERS:

    It is very disturbing that religious narrow- mindedness, intolerance, violence and hatred continues unabated due to randomness of birth. Maybe, just maybe if this fact would be published on the first page of every newspaper every day, that we would finally realize the significant stupidity of all religions.

    John Hick, a noted British philosopher of religion, estimates that 95 percent of the people of the world owe their religious affiliation to an accident (the randomness) of birth. The faith of the vast majority of believers depends upon where they were born and when. Those born in Saudi Arabia will almost certainly be Moslems, and those born and raised in India will for the most part be Hindus. Nevertheless, the religion of millions of people can sometimes change abruptly in the face of major political and social upheavals. In the middle of the sixth century ce, virtually all the people of the Near East and Northern Africa, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt were Christian. By the end of the following century, the people in these lands were largely Moslem, as a result of the militant spread of Islam.

    The Situation Today
    Barring military conquest, conversion to a faith other than that of one’s birth is rare. Some Jews, Moslems, and Hindus do convert to Christianity, but not often. Similarly, it is not common for Christians to become Moslems or Jews. Most people are satisfied that their own faith is the true one or at least good enough to satisfy their religious and emotional needs. Had St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas been born in Mecca at the start of the present century, the chances are that they would not have been Christians but loyal followers of the prophet Mohammed. “ J. Somerville

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

      Before Jesus' Death, Burial, and Resurrection there ZERO Christians, and now there are millions!! The Good news \ Gospel that Jesus died for your sins, and that anyone who believes in him may have eternal life has been preached to nearly the entire world, exactly as Jesus told his disciples to do.

      What you fail to understand is that the scriptures teach that just before the end there would be a great Apostasy and then the Man of Lawlessness would be revealed. This is where we are now, with many falling away, yet we are promised that whoever endures till the end will be saved.

      Matthew 5
      11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
    • Matt

      In response to the writer calling himself Reality (the one who it seems put up part of one of his college essays to respond to an article). Some facts to note: Augustine, whose mom was Christian, was himself first a Manichee; second, a NeoPlatonist; and third, and only lastly, a Christian. So, it is probably best if u use another example. Nevertheless, one can say the same about atheism (most atheists grow up in cities in the western world - they are products of their culture). Also, John Hicks, the guy you cited, was a theologian like James Cone. It is always better to know what it is your talking about, so I suggest actually reading, or reading about, the people your talking about. That being said, before everyone gets all uppity about an article about James Cone; perhaps, they should read Cone first. While I don't totally agree with him, he has an interesting take, and he can be very convincing and fun to read.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Reality

      (from Professor Crossan's book, "Who is Jesus" co-authored with Richard Watts)

      "Moreover, an atonement theology that says God sacrifices his own son in place of humans who needed to be punished for their sins might make some Christians love Jesus, but it is an obscene picture of God. It is almost heavenly child abuse, and may infect our imagination at more earthly levels as well. I do not want to express my faith through a theology that pictures God demanding blood sacrifices in order to be reconciled to us."

      "Traditionally, Christians have said, 'See how Christ's passion was foretold by the prophets." Actually, it was the other way around. The Hebrew prophets did not predict the events of Jesus' last week; rather, many of those Christian stories were created to fit the ancient prophecies in order to show that Jesus, despite his execution, was still and always held in the hands of God."

      "In terms of divine consistency, I do not think that anyone, anywhere, at any time, including Jesus, brings dead people back to life."

      And about John Hick (not Hicks)

      "Professor John Harwood Hick (20 January 1922 – 9 February 2012) was a philosopher of religion and theologian. In philosophical theology, he made contributions in the areas of theodicy, eschatology, and Christology, and in the philosophy of religion he contributed to the areas of epistemology of religion and religious pluralism.[2]"

      Read more: http://www.answers.com/topic/john-hick#ixzz1su9sxrFA

      April 23, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  20. Antony Scalia

    Oh, SHOVE IT where the SUN doesn't shine and GET OVER IT.

    MORE **WHITES** have been MURDERED BY **BLACKS** than WERE EVER LYNCHED in the South.

    If you're STILL ANGRY, GO AFTER THE PEOPLE IN **AFRICA** WHO SOLD YOU AS SLAVES. THEY THOUGHT OF THEIR OWN PEOPLE AS COMMODITIES to be exported to the HIGHEST BIDDER.

    So, SHUT UP.

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

      IGNORANCE IS BLISS?

      April 23, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • b

      You're go* da*m lie!! Stupid Bit ch...

      April 23, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • 4frumAfrica

      You hate people just for color. Now you compared races killing each other. You wish you lived 70 years ago. Well, may Lord forgive you. What happened then was extremely bad. Future doesnt look good because of people like you,.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:37 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.