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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. ProperVillain

    Segregation and the 60's are over. Get over it and move on. There is a black man in the white house. The time of complaining about being "oppressed" and "held back" by the man are over. A lot of these guys from the 60's civil right era are well meaning but, to me are basically holding back progress by living in the past. Yeah, my ancestors were enslaved by the Romans. Should I still carry a grudge against the Italians because of it? Move on people, move on...

    April 23, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  2. RealGlaird

    Absolutely unbelievable how CNN can run this article. Assuming Mr. Cone is an honest man, then his entire story is about learning to forgive, getting beyond such primitive thinking as 'race' or 'social classes & injustice'. His story is especially about the evils of vigilante justice.
    So what has CNN done for the last month, almost on a daily basis? They have run one article after another calling for the lynching of Zimmerman, the beatification of Trayon, bypassing/short circuiting the judicial system, and promoting hate speech so that truth will be perverted in favor of swift animal revenge.
    How utterly hypocritical and dishonest! How typical of Ted Turner. Yet, when looking at the shameless unabashed stupid racist and moronic remarks of most of CNN's readers, apparently CNN is not the only primitive reptiles roaming this planet.
    My advice to CNN and you readers; is to actually read this story and see if you can find a trace of humanity in it. Then start behaving like civilized human beings instead of sub human vultures.

    April 23, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Roger Ramjet

      While I generally dislike morons, you are so good at being a moron that I am impressed.

      "How typical of Ted Turner." Turner hasn't had any connection to CNN in years. Long gone.

      "They have run one article after another calling for the lynching of Zimmerman" I must have missed those.

      " . . . the beatification of Trayon" I missed those articles too.

      " . . . and promoting hate speech so that truth will be perverted in favor of swift animal revenge." I think you were asleep when you read those, in what we call a "dream".

      But I do admire the intense stupidity necessary to come up with ideas like those. Bravo!

      April 23, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  3. Raksha

    Why is this story here ? Today ? Was this posted on Sunday ? What's the reason ? Sometimes it feels like CNN is trying to incite negative feelings between races. If one questions CNN's motive, then you are a racist. They rarely have positive stories about the success of minorities, and in the rare times that they do, it's how the person became successful in spite of the horrible white people. Only stories about the white devils & how horrible they have been to other races.
    President Obama is a successful man, who is especially brilliant, has accomplished a great deal as president, was a professor and head of the Harvard Law Review and so on, can't we hear more details about that ? He is successful because he is smart, not in spite of being black.

    April 23, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  4. Avy

    Mr. America I wonder why you interfere with other countries when you have so many internal problems. You stupid racist a**holes- Here is the solution i convey from Nepal (Asia).
    Whites: Go back to Europe and other parts where you originally belong (Since i saw some comments where racits whites are asking blacks to go back to Africa.
    Blacks: Go back to Africa ( Since I saw some comments in which racist blacks were bringing up the long lost history ..)
    Let the Red Indians rule the United States 😀
    Nobody has commented about the true ruler the North America.

    April 23, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • Urafkntool

      That would be whites, since Kennewick Man (the oldest remains ever found in North America) is actually caucasoid.

      April 23, 2012 at 6:05 pm |
  5. Roger Ramjet

    The responses to this article prove unequivocally that there is a very deep river of racism still in America, and it is a strong, barely hidden force behind the hatred towards the president.

    The modern tactic to hide one's racism is to claim that the other side is really the racists, but the vitriol clearly shows their own severe racism.

    April 23, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  6. Freeman L

    why is it that I never see any of these racist comments about forgetting the past when something about the holocaust is posted? why is it that African americans can never speak out about the conditions that they suffered without a white person adding an opinion about how long ago it was? I just dont understand where the hatred comes from. this wasnt that long ago, people who have survived this are still alive and live with the painful memories of the injustice they have suffered, why is the hate for african americans so strong?

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

      When was the last time CNN had an article about the Holocaust ? There are still more hate crimes against Jews than any other minority, when did CNN last mention that ?

      April 23, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
    • Know What

      Raksha, When did CNN last have an article about the holocaust?

      About 4 days ago:
      http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/04/19/my-take-7-life-lessons-from-a-holocaust-survivor/comment-page-5/#comment-1217331

      It is still active for comment, if you wish.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • babykitty

      Raksha, that is untrue. Jews are not the most targetted minority group. The FBI publishes hate crime stats. It isn't hard to find.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • babykitty

      Freeman, I don't see jews committing murder and mayhem and then blaming it on the Holocaust. Also, the only "gap" in schools between jews and everyone else is that they have the highest scores.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
    • Raksha

      @KnowWhat
      Issues against black people still takes the CNN coverage prize against Jews, woman's rights, Chinese slavery in the USA, Latinos or any other group.......hands down. I don't understand why.

      April 23, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • Know What

      Raksha,

      Pretend that you run these blogs.

      Holocaust article – 4 days = 494 comments
      This article – 1 day = 2,150 comments

      Which type of article are you more likely to run in the future?

      April 23, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
  7. A.M.PAVLIK

    THERE IS NO EASY ANSWERS, NOR ANY EASY MOVEMENTS. BLACK,WHITEMMEXICO,FRENCH,IRISH,POLISH,WHAT DOES IT MATTER? WE ARE ALL CHILDREN OF THE WORLD AND WHATEVER YOU SAY AS YOUR GOD, BUT, LET US UNDERSTAND SOMETHING. "MURDER IS MURDER. IF YOU KILL YOUR OWN, IT IS STILL MURDER. WHAT HAPPENED TO THE HONOR OF YOUR PARENTS, AND GRANDPARENTS? IS IT DIFFERENT IF YOU ARE BLACK, OR ITALIAN, IF YOU RUN WITH THE MAFIA, THEN YOU FOLLOW THOSE WHO DO NOT RESPECT OTHERS.WHAT HAPPENED TO THE HARD LIVING OF OUR FOREFATHERS AND THE HONOR WE SHOULD HAVE FOR THE WAY THEY LIVED AND DIED. GOD OR HOLY ONE, HELP US TO FIND OUR SPACE AND HONOR AGAIN.

    April 23, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  8. NeutralityAct

    Yawn.....

    April 23, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  9. Paul

    To Mr. Cone the South and all of the US is not that way anymore the only one that has hate is people like you. I did not do anything to black people nor did my family so don’t blame all white people for what a few did. Stop the hate so we all can live together.

    April 23, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  10. jkrizan

    Superb article! I wish I had Professor Cone and Rev. Jeremiah Wright as some of my teachers during my under graduate work.

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

      I guess you don't care about the integrity and quality of your education...

      April 23, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  11. sortakinda

    It seems that Dr. Cone is not even trying to write about the acts of a limited number of whites in the South and what they did to a limited number of Black people (albeit maintaining a reign of terror) without sounding like he hates white peoople who are alive today. I don't like Napoleon and what he did, but I can't undo it by hating the French.

    April 23, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
  12. Scott

    Cone=Hate+religion

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

    History is History wether you run it up a flag pole or speak about it in an article. you cant have it both ways! Its either racist or its not!

    April 23, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  14. DH

    It's a fact that more whites than blacks have been lynched in the US. Of course, angry blacks who are looking to blame the white man for everything ignore this fact. They also ignore the fact that thousands of whites are victims of crimes committed by blacks each year and that blacks are 8 times more likely to commit a murder. Apparently, none of this matters.

    April 23, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • babykitty

      I am interested in your source for the number of lynchings. The only figures I could find were that about 5000 people were lynched between 1882 and 1968 and 3500 were black. The last black lynching was in 1930 and is depicted in the picture above.

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

      What's your source for the assertion about more whites lynched than blacks?

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

      I have my doubts about your 'facts' but I am pretty sure that almost no whites have been lynched based on the color of their skin.

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

      Henry, I have yet to find a single instance where a black person was lynched solely for the color of his skin. I don't defend lynching, but I do not like reading misinformation.

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

      Your full of it. Sure there were white lynchings, but you want us to sit here and believe the murders were motivated by the same reasons? You ever see a black person in the mob lynching a black person? You ever see a black person in a mob lynching a white person? Some of the reasons black people are violent today is because of the oppression as suffering. The forced lack of schooling and segregation. Sure it will take us a long time to catch up. Morals, belief systems and traditions take generations to learn and build and the suffering will take longer to forget. It wont go away just because someone doesnt want to listen to it. The past is not the past. It affects us still today in more ways than you can imagine. Yessir massa yesir! PS..pardon my english and writing im still working on that too!

      April 23, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • DH

      BabyKitty – Indeed the official statistics are consistent with what you wrote. However, there were many lynchings of italian and irish immigrants as well as many white lynchings in the old west that went unreported. Therefore, many people believe that, in reality, more whites were lynched.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • babykitty

      Civil_People_Power, as long as people keep making excuses for themselves and blame others for their lack of civilized behavior, they will continue to lag behind.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  15. Julie

    Holding on to hate only perpetuates and validates hate and violence. He is perpetuating and encouraging reverse prejudices toward whites from blacks. People like him will doom future generations to repeat the past over and over again by using hate as a vehicle for their own selfishness.

    April 23, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Freeman L

      Your statements regarding reverse racism are off point and bias, why do all whites want us to forget the past, forget 400 plus years of free labor, forget the police brutaility and the lynchings? would you ask a jewish person to forget the holocaust?

      April 23, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • babykitty

      Freeman, there is no such thing as reverse racism. Any group can be racist. "Reverse racism" implies that only one group can be racist, which is a racist idea.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  16. Bobby

    It is what it is...history. Get over it. And as for CNN...why report on this garbage? It's main stream media and reports like this that continue to make racism alive and well in America. I am getting really sick of the "minority thing"...special scholorships for underpriveledged blacks and hispanics, special tv channels for blacks and hispanics. Todays society has created many people like me, people who used to not harbor negative feelings for minorities...read that closely...used to. I pray Obama doesnt get elected again, and I pray it's many decades before we try another minority president. Hey CNN, thanks for ruining my lunch.

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

      I absolutely agree with you Bobby. I voted for Obama and the only reason why many blacks dislike Obama now is because he hasn't "...done nothin' for black people!" (A direct quote I heard from an African-American woman who chose to sit close to me in a fried chicken restaurant in Chicago and have her egregious conversation with another African-American woman). Obama is promoting laws for ALL AMERICANS; not just African-Americans!

      April 23, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • sortakinda

      I used to think that CNN offered a news forum that was not the extremes of either FOX or the NBCs. It is a bottom feeder organization, worse than either of them.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • Kevin

      @Julie, well, after a few hundred years of white presidents helping only white people, maybe that woman thought black people were due some assistance. So you extrapolate the views of all blacks from a conversation you heard over lunch? Unbelievable.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • electricdubb

      Hey Kevin, tell us what more can be done for the Black man? Tell your people to get to work and raise their kids right.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  17. Shaniqua

    White people don't realize how much they owe us for all the suffering and hate.

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

      I dont owe you anything except a swift kick for thinking that way. I bet you were never a slave, I bet your mother wasnt either. I sure as hell have never owned any, therefore I dont owe you anything.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
    • RdWhtNBlu

      Shaniqua! Pretty much says it all. I mean just your name, classic ghetto.

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

      What possibly do think white people owe you?

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

      I owe you nothing! You've obviously been brainwashed by the perpetuation of hate by all the other generations of blacks. Keep it up! The color wars will never end, if you all keep talking and thinking the way you do! I put MYSELF through college and I found a good-paying job ON MY OWN and I was able to buy my father two brand new plasma TV's this weekend because I WORKED FOR IT! NO GOVERNMENT HAS EVER, EVER GIVEN ME A HANDOUT! STAY IN SCHOOL, ACT PROFESSIONALLY AND EMPLOYMENT-WORTHY AND YOU, TOO, CAN BUY YOUR PARENTS TV'S!

      April 23, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • electricdubb

      Free housing? Scholarships? Land? What?...What percentage black does a person have to be to get these benefits? W

      April 23, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  18. Rabbit One

    i concur – lynchings are pure evil – such as the jesse washington lynching – which ended my faith in mankind for awhile – any lynching is so full of hate – i pray god we never see it ever again in our times

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

      If I owe you money than you owe me some yard work.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
  19. j

    they hung rapists and murderers of ALL colors back then.

    its a practice whos time has come again

    April 23, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  20. Jack

    How very sad this article is. AND how sad some of these comments are.

    April 23, 2012 at 1:05 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.