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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. Tom

    The union army should have never left the south until ignorance was purged from OUR nation. The people who felt the blacks weren’t equal have no right to stand under the red white & blue. We are Americans and I proud we have a mixed culture, it makes all strong in being so.

    April 23, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Wakeupamerica

      I wonder if your idealistic views would change if you or your family was the target of black violence ?

      April 23, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Wakeupamerica

      I wonder if your idealistic views would change if you or your family was the target of black violence ? Especially if the criminals got off because Jesse and Obama spoke out in defense of the criminals.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • OrganizedConfusion

      @ wakeupAmerica – If you are at this point now, where you hate blacks, then you were already predisposed to this mindset. All you needed was a catalyst of any sort to get you there. It's either that or it's that you met or saw a few black people you don't like and decided to hate or blame the entire black race for your own internal problems.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  2. farleyjc

    There is no reason to bring up this topic and make people angry after 80 years. There is absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose. I am sorry to see that CNN gave this idiot a platform to promote racism.

    April 23, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Carl

      I agrees with you.it looks like he is trying to start a race war

      April 23, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • shamisa

      I totally agree.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Dave Rom Philly

      There a plenty of reasons to bring this up. It is part of the history of our country. Things that happened yesterday determine today and the future.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • Wakeupamerica

      It would be a race skirmish as it would be over before it started. A race war wouldn't be played on a basketball court and last time I checked, bullets don't care about skin color and intellegence/stragey have more to do with deciding today's wars than anything else.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • Henry

      The Ostrich believes the best tactic to hide from predators is to bury it's head in the dirt. I see you are a student of the ostrich.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • Wakeupamerica

      I'm tired of watching CNN and others trying to incite racial divide. Fortunately, I think there are too many smart hispanics, blacks, whites, asians...... in this country to let this great nation get divided by a racial war/skirmish. That's another reason it would be over before it started.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • skegeeace

      You've GOT to be kidding- are you in a dream world? You probably believe we're in a post-racial era. Spppft! How dare you say they have nothing to be angry about. Did we not just witness an innocent black man run over by some dumb kid's pick up truck for no reason? Are Blacks and Hispanics still not the poorest in our country? Go read a book and get real.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  3. Beetlejuice

    Theologian?

    Riiiight.

    "If God is not for us and against white people, then He is a murderer, and we had better kill him."

    I rest my case.

    April 23, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  4. Balance

    The black community is keeping racism alive because if they don't, they lose the sepcial treatment afforded them. We have equality – African Americans have reached the highest levels of the US government, the highest levels of the American entertainment industry and the highest levels of corporate America. It's time to quit dredging up the past. You want to talk about lynching? Let's talk about Spike Lee attempting to brodcast John Zimmerman's address so the black community could take the law into their own hands and go punish him.

    April 23, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • John Smith2

      That is totally true!

      April 23, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • Paul

      Every Thing That Comes Out Of Whites Mouth is So Racist and Coded. Stop With the Black Community, the Black Community!!! What About The White, White, White, Caucasian, Caucasian, Caucasian Community, It its never ending Genocide to all Races and Ethnicities????

      April 23, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Nicole Chardenet

      I wonder if this man would speak out & say it would be wrong to lynch George Zimmermann. Whether he's guilty or innocent, NO ONE deserves to be lynched. It is ALWAYS wrong.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
    • uzalex

      Really?????

      April 23, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
  5. CarmenSo

    "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."
    If I grew up terrified that one or both of my parents would be killed and had to sit at a window wondering if they were coming home every night I would be pretty bitter and unforgiving too.

    April 23, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
    • Richard

      Too bad they missed him.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Paul

      I cant even Read this article, or watch the pictures or may like them. To painful...Would like to forget this ever happened...but the stain will always be there...and the times have not really changed. It is just not as public lynching!!

      April 23, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • Paul

      I cant even Read this article, or watch the pictures or many like them. To painful...Would like to forget this ever happened!!...but, the stain will always be there...and the times have not really changed. It is just not as public lynching!!

      April 23, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  6. Copper's Donut Shoppe

    "Any preacher with more than 2 suits is nothing but a hustler." Lenny Bruce

    April 23, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  7. John Smiith

    That pic is AWESOME! thats my grandpa on the left!

    April 23, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Copper's Donut Shoppe

      sorry for your famlies loss.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • John Smith2

      He once told the dentist to floss their teeth

      April 23, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • John Smiith

      No the smiling white guy is my grandpa

      April 23, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  8. John

    That girl in the lower lefthand corner of the pic is kinda cute.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  9. Jute

    It makes me angry that anyone would do this to another human being and I am not black. I can understand why it is difficult to get beyond the anger and bitterness but I hope Cone will let go of the anger and move on. It's time.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • John Smith2

      Hello, im John

      April 23, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Faith-Isn't-a-Preacher

      Stay away from the middle-east. You would be overwhelmed with what they do to one another.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Carl

      it's past time

      April 23, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
  10. david

    in 1972 i went to school with the first black person. it has been a nightmare every since. they will always believe we owe them something. my Grand parents were racist people, i vowed not to be that way but blacks have made me hate them... for the most part they are just ruining this country, it will be like Africa before we know it.....if your not racist come on down to the south and go to the mall or any public place. then u will be...

    April 23, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
    • John Smith2

      Same

      April 23, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • TomCom

      I married to a latina. Her family hates whites. They did not go to our wedding. They wish all whites would be shipped back to Europe.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • wes

      They made you hate them? Bahahahhahahaha. Hey, how do you spell dumba$$ in english? D-a-v-i-d...

      April 23, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
    • kwabena jjemba

      David, you have always been a racist. African people didn't make you anything, you chose to follow in the path of your racist parents. Africa is and will always be a beautiful country, the people who are suffering from despotic leaders are still some of the most loving and honorable people on the face of the earth. Be a racist and stand up, don't hide behind a false facade of "da black folks made me do it". Be a real man or something

      April 23, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Dave Rom Philly

      If you hate you do so because you choose to hate.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  11. toad

    i feel so guilty..........guess ill have to vote for the half black dude again !

    April 23, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  12. Zeno B

    You people don't read history do you? President Lincoln was a Republican and after he was murdered all of the south, who hated him, went solid Democrat. All of what happened after Lincoln was killed was brought on by the Democratic Party including over a hundred years of segregation. You people are dumber than the Democratic politicians leading you around by your nose! Why don't you investigate all the Africans who rounded up other Africans and sold them into slavery?

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

      zeno, dont let the facts spoil a good story

      April 23, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • TomCom

      Zeno, you're an idiot!

      April 23, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • OrganizedConfusion

      Slavery is something that has happened in many races and cultures in the history of our world. Many people who were enslaved, were either tricked or sold by people who were more powerful. The issue here is that the treatment of this particular group of African slaves, that eneded up in the country that became the United States of America, were treated so inhumanely, lynched, murdered, tortured, stripped from their families and rightful lineage, renamed, forced to eat scraps that the master would not eat, but had discarded, etc... Many slave groups throughout the history of the world were treated more humane and provided better conditions than what was the outcome in American slavery. It's not pretty, no matter how you explain it away... The political affiliations of Republicans, Democrats, Independents, etc. does not matter when it comes to human life. Bad people come in many cultures, hues, races, religions, political parties, etc. Get it?

      April 23, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • hippie power 69

      and in 1964 & 1965 when LBJ signed the civil rights and voting rights into law the democrats lost the south to the repunlican'ts and they are responsible for the south through today. LBJ knew he was losing the south but also knew it was important to do what he was doing. he said at the time that the south was gone to democrats for the next generation or two. he was right.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  13. John

    Pack your bags. We're going on a White Guilt Trip!!!

    April 23, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  14. toad

    between 1880 and 194o there were app. 5000 blacks lynched.
    question....how many whites?

    April 23, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
    • babykitty

      The 5000 number is an outright lie. It was less than 5000 TOTAL (black + white) lynchings. Black lynchings making up about 3500 of those.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
  15. John

    Feed that white guilt.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Faith-Isn't-a-Preacher

      Too many thought the 2008 election was an indication that we put racism behind us.
      Just look now at who is drumming up racism. Apparently it's a political tool that they aren't ready to let become history. It's no longer about race; it's about a political class created to solidify political control over the masses.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • Tru2USA

      No guilt here. My great-great grandfather fought for the North in the Civil War. Why should whites feel guilt anyway unless they actually participated? I don't feel guilty for something I didn't do or by inaction allow to happen.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
  16. J.R.

    Why is the MSM continuing to beat the race war drums ? Oh yes, I almost forgot, It is an election year.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
  17. d4yzer0

    We're going to see a lot of stories like this up until November. We need to go to the polls believing that racism is the number one issue affecting Americans, and that the United States will never survive without The Great Healer and Uniter in the White House. Americans are probably the LEAST racist people in the world. And as a whole, I believe we're a lot smarter than we were four years ago. Try again, CNN. Accuse a Republican of eating a kitten. Talk about Trent Lott. Exhume Jerry Falwell. Race-hustling is so 2008.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Kevin

      Fail. Americans are NOT the least racist people in the world. Not even close. Try Canada, as only one example. There are no black or white neighbourhoods in major cities, we all live everywhere, and yes, we have major cities such as Toronto (5 million). And we have lots of ethnicities, as we allow 10% immigration per year, the vast majority of it non-white. When I meet black people from the U.S., they all say the same thing, that they feel so free here because white people treat them better. When visiting LasVegas last year, I made some white people visibly angry by giving up my bus seat to an old black couple instead of to them. Black people in the U.S. are surprised when white people treat them LIKE PEOPLE. You should try it some time. How can you believe that the U.S. is not racist? You obviously aren't black.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  18. Faith-Isn't-a-Preacher

    What he should be appalled at in this era is how the Democrats have segregated us by Class.
    The Democrats have cultivated a dependency class that looks to Uncle Sam as the Plantation Master. While enslaving the working class to government regulations, taxation, and suppression of Rights, Liberties, and Freedoms. But all we hear when such suppression is mentioned is that 'Everything is fine'.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  19. urafkntool

    Dear Nig,

    If you don't like America, go back to Africa where you belong.

    Sincerely,

    Intelligent White America

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

      hell yea....

      April 23, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • Faith-Isn't-a-Preacher

      That is so juvenile.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • Nicole West

      Dear IWA,

      Didn't you get the memo, the N word has a no effect on us anymore. We are racing to the top and will become the minority elite that will rule the same country we built! Your end is near!!

      April 23, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
    • Sonia

      He never said that he didn't like America. He said he didn't like the injustice in America. Why don't you go back to where you came? Unless you are a Native American your an immigrant. Don't be hateful because you can, you teach your children that and they learn to fear people. Go away and do something nice for other people for a change instead of hating them.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Carl

      AAAAMEN

      April 23, 2012 at 1:15 pm |
    • urafkntool

      @Faithless: no, just fact.

      @Nicole: Don't you have welfare to collect for your 12 kids from different "baby daddies"?

      @Sonia: Sorry, but "Native americans" are actually European descent. Look up Kennewick Man. His skeleton was found and he has a caucasoid skull structure, not mongoloid (which is Indian).

      April 23, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
    • Nicole West

      @urafkntool

      LMBO! U wish! I graduated from grad school and have my own business. Like i said, since you obviously have selective reading, we are on the way to the top...crushing insignficant white people like you who are angry that we are progressing faster than your people and its because we are the best of the best. We were here first and everyone will soon see just how significant we are! We are re-educating ourselves and realizing the importance of unity. WE SHALL OVERCOME!

      April 23, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  20. artb

    Why does CNN even allow readers to post comments? All it does it bring out the nasty White, KKKonservatives that hide behind an alias and a computer.

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

      God help this country when whites reach their limits and step out away from their computers. It will be a sad day for everyone.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • babykitty

      and what about the posters calling for killing all the white children? I guess you only read the comments you disagreed with.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Tru2USA

      For the same reason CNN posts racist loaded articles...freedom of speach.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Carl

      you know where you can go too

      April 23, 2012 at 1:19 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.