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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. TruthPrevails :-)

    The fact is that the USA remains one of the most racist countries to this day. If people would learn to set aside color and focus on the real issues the country would be a in better way. The buybull promotes slavery and supporting the buybull means you support all it says. Christards are the biggest group of hypocrites, racist, hom.o.phobics, child abusers, criminals going.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:24 am |
    • Eric

      @ Truth (actually, just a bad impersonation of it) Prevails

      You're really a clueless fellow, aren't you? Better check around the world for some actual ra cist hot-spots before you make mindless accusations about the good ol' US of A. Start with Indonesia, then go to Ja pan and start to slowly move across Asia and the middle-east. Eventually you'll find yourself in Africa. Enjoy yourself there, smart-ass.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      @Eric: I stand by my previous statement about you...you're a delusional idiot!!! The facts are the facts and you turning a blind eye to them does not change them. I said one of the most racist, not the most. You are a christard and so your opinion counts for nothing in reality...you base your life off of lies. So please don't tell me you know what the word truth means when you are a lazy ass incapable of thinking for yourself. Check your facts loser boy. And btw: most of the prisoners are christards, not any other faith.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:29 am |
    • Leo Veynberg

      You need to travel... Try India where the cast system still thrives to this day.

      April 22, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  2. nate

    Angry as to why the white man's invisible friend never seemed to agree with the black man's invisible friend. What a stupid foundation.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:24 am |
  3. Bill Miller

    I can feel and understand your pain and hope that you can forgive the race as a whole. Most white folks are good and kind hearted They will go out of their way to help people of all races, because we are all brothers and sisters in the eyes of the Lord. This is a truly horrible picture, and to see the smile of the racist white people watching, makes me ashamed of my white side. May God Almighty forgive us all!

    April 22, 2012 at 7:24 am |
    • Jim

      Why don't you take a bubble bath, read your romance novel, and have a good cry. Jeebus!

      April 22, 2012 at 8:22 am |
  4. Variaballistic

    Too simplistic. That sort of thinking is how we got racism in the first place. "God" made them black, you see, for a "reason".
    Very simple for some to believe. Simple-minded believers who think some racist Jew cult figure was legit. Good times.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:22 am |
    • Scott

      @Variaballistic: In memory of all your ranting, biased posts over these pages comes to mind that little turd hanging on the back end of our Chihuahua that she drags on the carpet till it comes off. Hoping your turd-word can be so cleansed from our collective consciousness,

      April 23, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
  5. VVVVV

    History hasn't been told correctly. The truth is we were 2 cultures that didn't get along and committed atrocities against each other. The media and society is one sided now and they are one sided about history too.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:20 am |
    • fineartguru

      Crule

      April 22, 2012 at 7:36 am |
  6. To the tiny nail

    They only call it class warfare when we try to fight back.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:17 am |
  7. Brad76

    I've seen enough ignorance and disguised racism from black racists and white racists to last a lifetime. So if you black racists want to start riots and commit violence against innocent people over a long dead issue, I'll be the first on the phone to call the police and have your racist/violent behinds tossed in jail. Same goes for racist whites, don't even think about it!

    Black and white racists are a minority anyhow as everyone knows, ignore CNN and it's hateful race baiting. Thanks.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:13 am |
  8. enoch100

    Wow – this Cone fellow is filled with hate.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:11 am |
  9. Surthurfurd

    We have a long way to go to return to the message of Christ. Sadly far too many of us have adopted a secular version of Christianity that has little in common with Jesus's teachings.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:08 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      You can't provide sufficient verifiable evidence for your christ and giving it credit for anything takes away from credit where it is due. Your buybull promotes slavery. To support that book means you also support slavery.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:18 am |
    • Eric

      @ TruthPrevails 😆

      Evidence? He doesn't have to. No believer does. You aren't owed, due, enti tled to, or required to have evidence of jacksh-it about anyone's diety, god, or belief. Here's a sock. Stuff it in your pie-hole and breath through your nose (breathing optional in your case.)

      April 22, 2012 at 7:28 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      @Eric: You're an idiot!! You make the claim of such gods, now back it. You have no evidence for what you believe and nothing backs it, so it is time you stuffed that sock down your own throat and stopped promoting the ma.ss delusions that your belief system teaches. The time will come where christardation will not be the majority and the world will be finally free of that book of fiction. Sadly that won't happen soon enough. You're the one living in a world that no longer exists...2000 year old book written by man, inspired by man and it has never changed. People who think like you are the ones causing the problems in this world!! You can't be trusted to give a rational opinion because you can't think for yourself!!

      April 22, 2012 at 7:35 am |
    • Eric

      " Blah, blah... I'm an angry, drooling, red-faced atheist blahblahblah and you're all idiots blah blah..."

      Pfftt.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:45 am |
    • Jim

      Eric, mellow out! Your Jewish zombie isn't coming back. The writings of 2000-years-dead desert lunatics were wrong! Sorry, dude!

      April 22, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      Eric: Such typical christard hypocrisy. You're the one believing in deities that can't be proven to exist and you are the one acting like a 10 yea old child who has been told they can't have what they want. Time to grow up little boy!

      April 22, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  10. zooni

    Do a modern day body count John Blake and stop feeling sorry for yourself. Some white supremest could show pictures of whites set on fire, beat in public. Police in many countries don't show race in violent crimes as it would show your anger is not about something that happened many years ago but just who you are.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:08 am |
  11. JesusLovesHatersToo

    LOL – The racists think they're hiding when they post their hate and venom online. But each rancid post is archived in a database for years. The FBI has multi-terabyte databases.

    Ask George Zimmerman. Evidently they recovered some of his racist speech from the internet. Any wonder he was whimpering like a baby in jail?

    Keep typing your hate. You're not really hiding. BOO!

    April 22, 2012 at 7:00 am |
    • YouAreAMoron

      And you think it is illegal to be racist, apparently.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:05 am |
    • JesusLovesHatersToo

      If you commit a murder or assault – it could be prosecuted as a federal hate crime.

      Woot!

      April 22, 2012 at 7:07 am |
    • YouAreAMoron

      Thanks for the advice! I guess I'll lay off the murders for a while then. facepalm

      April 22, 2012 at 7:09 am |
    • JesusLovesHatersToo

      Just another cowardly little white boy hiding behind the internet in his mom's single-wide.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:10 am |
    • Jim

      That's funny! The average FBI agent couldn't find his @$$ with both hands!

      April 22, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  12. Susie

    Old news, living in the past...time to do something about what is killing blacks today (and everyone else) drugs and gangs.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:00 am |
    • JesusLovesHatersToo

      Jesus loves you too, sweetie. Now go to church and pray.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:04 am |
    • Susie

      Try to make sense.

      April 22, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  13. Jt_flyer

    The Reublican party has been hijacked by extremists. This election is one the most critical in American history. VOTE

    April 22, 2012 at 6:59 am |
    • Surthurfurd

      That began with the 1970's Southern Strategy by a faction of the Republican establishement to court the Southern Democrats. Now the Southern Democrats have more power in the GOP than traditionalists.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:01 am |
    • JesusLovesHatersToo

      ....extreme baggers'.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:02 am |
  14. dan

    I just wasted five minutes of my time looking at this photo and reading this article. I guess I'm supposed to feel bad all day today about something that happened in Indiana in 1930.

    April 22, 2012 at 6:59 am |
    • JesusLovesHatersToo

      Darn those "uppity" black men.

      Too bad they earn millions now playing professional ball while you earn min wage a chicken farm.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:03 am |
    • Jean

      Dan,
      Feeling empathy is not feeling guilty. If you can look at that photo and not
      feel bad that something horrible was done, there is something missing
      from your spirit. I'll pray for you.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:23 am |
  15. francisphilip

    Dear Surthurfurd – you are correct; we must not forget the past so that we are not doomed to err again in the future. Many, many Christians do not read history however, because they are taught that history, especially Church history, is not to be respected or even accepted as being valid. This is is something that needs to change – as part of the healing process.

    April 22, 2012 at 6:56 am |
    • Surthurfurd

      Even more confusing is how many "Christians" have not solidly read Mark 5,6,7 (The Sermon on the Mount).

      April 22, 2012 at 7:00 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      The Sermon on the Mount has been debunked over and over again. Quoting scripture is no different than quoting Harry Potter or the Easter Bunny.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:21 am |
  16. Jnc

    8 out of 10 "news" articles coming from the corrupt, liberal, corporate media machine are about race. Equality isn't what they're striving for any longer. Today's goal is total, unquestioned control via the power of misinformation.

    April 22, 2012 at 6:55 am |
    • Surthurfurd

      You can look at the front page and find that your comment is off the mark.

      April 22, 2012 at 6:58 am |
    • Brad76

      Surthurfurd: get a clue.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:05 am |
    • JesusLovesHatersToo

      Isn't it terrible that CNN prints the truth about your hillbilly kin?

      April 22, 2012 at 7:06 am |
    • Brad76

      JesusLovesHatersToo- Black superiority is THRIVING. Racism is live and well!

      April 22, 2012 at 7:08 am |
  17. francisphilip

    The "prosperity" being preached in today's black churches is a sign of healing. I regret that Mr. Cone is not portrayed as acknowledging that healing was required, has actually occured, and continues to occur, even within his own soul. This is the work of God, and we should all be grateful...instead of hateful. Loving our enemies and forgiving are Christian actions (Father, forgive them. for they know not what they do.), and we must heal in order to be able to fully embrace and participate in those actions. Healing is happening by the Grace and Merit of Christ; embrace it and encourage the healing with faith, hope and love – with gratefulness and cheerfulness and love – that love which is not self-seeking and which can never be politiical or "for profit."

    April 22, 2012 at 6:51 am |
    • Surthurfurd

      It is equally dangerous to forget how far we have come as it is to forget from whence we came.

      April 22, 2012 at 6:52 am |
  18. Flatsguide

    Kinda like you are doing now?

    April 22, 2012 at 6:50 am |
  19. &^%$#@!

    "Can’t we give Chris [Brown] a break?…. O.J. Simpson, amazing. Is he not? What he did, when he did, what he did. Was he not amazing though"

    kayne west

    http://southafrica-pig.blogspot.com/

    http://www.thugreport.com/

    More pro-gun laws and much harsher treatment of thugs.

    April 22, 2012 at 6:49 am |
  20. Surthurfurd

    The White, Black, Asian, Hispanic, etc... racists are all finding it harder to speak out in public. They have to go online to hid behind pseudonyms.

    April 22, 2012 at 6:45 am |
    • Flatsguide

      Kinda like what you are doing now?

      April 22, 2012 at 6:52 am |
    • Surthurfurd

      It is true that i am using a pseudonym; but, I state the same opinion rather often outside of chat.

      April 22, 2012 at 6:53 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.