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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. Marquice

    I will live to see the day.......The white man doesn't understand that you treat others how you want to be treated. All I can post is that Karma is a "Beast". lol

    May 3, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  2. Marquice

    The white man doesn't understand that you treat others how you want to be treated. All I can post is that Karma is a "Beast". lol

    May 3, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  3. Anne

    All of this was prophesized in the Book of Revelation 6:2. Read the Book "Out of Evil–Cometh Good" by S.A. Bell Find out about Christopher Columbus?????????? What really happened.

    May 3, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  4. ERIC

    this is the black holocaust. we wont forget just like the jews wont forget.

    May 3, 2012 at 10:56 am |
    • S. Ingrum

      DAMN RIGHT ERIC!!! I'LL NEEEEEVER FORGET....EEEEEVER!!!

      May 3, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
  5. MassiveMarbles

    Awaken creators of man, our intermingled roots are locked, weakness is self destructive to our indigenous being. Awaken.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:59 am |
  6. sup

    If you people don't think one race isn't going to turn another race into slaves and second-class citizens like human did during that time period, you are wrong. Slavery will return, and the cycle will continue, maybe it will be a Mexican slavery, or White slavery, perhaps Asian or Black, but the cycle of natural selection will go on.

    Slavery is nothing more than a manifestation of natural selection. One man ruling another.

    May 2, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • Bob

      OK, Johnny, let's get back to first grade. One plus one is....

      May 2, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • Velia

      I wonder what have you been smoking? what don't we say that it would be the white man this time, there is more of us than all of you... and sop smoking it .....

      May 3, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
  7. Kim Bailey

    I'm outraged by my White race, now they say that Blacks are gorillas with vocal cords that can grunt ebonics, that blacks have never created or invented anything of value ever, that they are leeches and parasites copulating 24/7 and flooding the world with racist vicious nigglets.

    May 2, 2012 at 8:09 am |
    • EMack

      Kim,
      you must live in a trailer, you must sleep around, you have 6 kids from 4 different fathers, you abuse drugs, especially meth,... ...with your mother. You use food stamps for everything BUT food, you use gov assistance to buy alcohol, you lie cheat and steal to make yourself feel, think, and look better. YOu have absolutely no idea who your father is. You complain about things you could change if you weren't so lazy and in denial, AND angry at your life. You get your hair and nails did instead of paying your bills,...

      Is there really only one race that re-enforces this stereotype?

      Some people are just too ignorant to look past the surface. Kim, if you think black folks are the only ones who eat chicken, and amke babies you need to get off the front porch of your trailer!

      May 2, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  8. EEvolved

    Evolve People Evolve!!!

    May 1, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • Kim Bailey

      Whites= "Can gorillas evolve?"

      May 2, 2012 at 8:10 am |
  9. james

    What would be the current value of 40 acres and a mule, and if such payment were given to all descendent families of former slaves, would their hatred be abated, or would they just be wealthier bigots?

    May 1, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • northern light

      The picture at the beginning of this article tells a lot about America ....and you James.

      The caption reads:
      "A crowd gathers in Marion, Indiana, in 1930 to witness a lynching."

      These good god fearing white ppeople woke up next morning .......and went to church.

      Wonder how much hate you would have in yourself James if your mother or father were hanged on a Saturady night after being dragged behind a pickup truck driven by good ole boys......just havi a biy of fun.

      May 1, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Kim Bailey

      A white guy told me: "Show me a place that blacks have made better or improved......just one!"

      May 2, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • Crystal

      Kim, I don't think you would be able to live throughout the day without getting into a car accident if it was not for a black person. I am not sure if, God forbid, you have heart valve issues that you will survive that surgery if it was not for a black person. If you owned a store and someone tried to rob your cash register, and they could not open it because it is burglur proof....You'd have to thank a black person. I can go on and on.

      May 2, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  10. Dorothy

    Racism is alive and well in the US of A. Racism in America is taught from the womb, some white people will be racist and don't even know that they are, because it just feels natural becuase of what they have seen their parents and relatives and other white people do on a daily basis. Alot of white people get their information about black people from what they see on TV, movies, read in the news, etc; and have never met a black person. Let's see, a few years ago a black man was tied up and drug behind a pickup truck by some white men, until his body was torn apart, some months ago, a black man was beaten by some white teenagers and then ran over with a truck and they laughed about it. Ever negative and venomous comment on this post, shows, Racism is alive and well in the US of A.

    May 1, 2012 at 2:46 am |
    • tlrey38

      Really "D" some whites are raciest and don't even know. Well I know I or any other "white" person can convince you otherwise. Maybe your the raciest and don't know it. Do you see how well that logic works. Enjoy your world of hate and blame.

      May 1, 2012 at 4:03 am |
    • Mike

      It's an interesting point, and definitely valid in some respects. I wouldn't say that all white people are racist, though. More appropriately, all white people are prejudice... Just like everyone else. We're all inundated with racial epitaphs and repeated stereotypes that it's inevitable to develop archetypes for the racial groups and prejudices against each type. With the proper definition of "racist" as allowing systemic continuation of racial prejudice to continue, then

      Beverly Tatum once wrote, "Sometimes [the smog] is so thick that it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are b reathing it. None of us would introduce ourselves as 'smog-breathers'... but if we live in a smoggy place, how can we avoid breathing the air?" Her analogy is to the point that *everyone* is subject to what is shown in media. Some people are in situations that are better adjusted to recognize their prejudices and actively work against them, while some aren't or are unwilling to.

      Either way, I'm willing to agree that America as a whole is prejudices and full of archetypes for how we see each others' roles, but I'm not willing to agree that all white people are racists, actively or passively, because there are definitely some, though not enough, white people actively disassembling the racial prejudices of the current American system.

      May 1, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
    • sup

      You know, whites are not the only group of racists right? Are you trying to tell me that every non-white is a sweet little angel that accepts any kind of diversity? Please, Asians are nearly as racist as whites were in the 60's. Asians who live in their home country are super ethnocentric.

      May 2, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
  11. Mike Hammer

    I have read alot of the comments and imo what is not articulated that while no its not 1950 and there are many people who DO NOT judge a person by their race think about it. In the history of a country 62yrs is not a long time. I know for a fact that the white men and women that I share handshakes and hugs with on a daily basis would not be well recieved and could lead to harm being done to them or myself only 62 yrs ago. What also is not being noted is while yes black people were lynched white people were as well only for crime not their skin color. We also forget that while we lynched/hung each other Native Americans were sought out and systematically exterminated(Manifest Destiny-read the history books)I haven't seen anything resembling the NAACP or La Raza for Native Americans. They are exiled to portions of land(Reservations)an forgotten. I am black(not african-american. I was born in America. If I go to Africa I am not a muslim nor do I speak Arabic or whatever the dominant language is there)what we should do as AMERICANS is stand together and point the finger at those among us who harbor ignorance and draconian beliefs about race relations and send them all to one place where their poison wont infect us normal people.

    April 30, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
    • webbernite

      why do white people still think its okay to show these images?

      April 30, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
    • haterslayer

      Because "Webbernite", whether you like it or not it's a piece of history, the fact that it happened will never go away, there are paintings of women being burned at the stake, and old old pictures of native Americans with small pox, pictures and videos of hundreds of thousands of Jews being pulled out of body pits, murder is wrong all the time. Saying "why do white people still think its okay to show these images?" assuming that only white people had a hand in this kinda hints at racism from your angle dude, you don't think Cone had any input in this article? No race deserves special treatment cause that's what will keep racism, segregation, and stereotypes alive.

      May 2, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  12. harinder

    The question is not how many peopole got lynched or murdered. It is the deafning silenece from the churches and the people who atteneded those churches. For one not to raise voice against atrocities is equal to committing one. Had the germans not been brainwashed by Hitler, maybe there would be no holocast. It is a wishful thinking that mankind will grow up and understand what this world all about. But that day willlo never come as is obvious from many stupiid coments above and below.

    April 30, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
  13. The Observer

    This story rings hallow after the death threats and the Wanted Dead or Alive price blacks have placed on George Zimmerman's. Remove the log from your eye before you lecture us.

    April 30, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • David

      Zimmerman isn't even white. He's mixed and clearly LATINO. What's with the "us" vs "them" nonsense? Zimmerman isn't "one" of you. And the only blacks I'm aware of putting a price on his head was the New Black Panther, the black counterpart of the KKK. Pointing out/ calling for justice, which is what many blacks did, and calling for one's head are two VERY different things. Please remove the log from YOUR eyes. Thanks.

      April 30, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
    • Nick

      Zimmerman admitted he killed.These were innocents that were lynched ! Your arguement is dumb ! Apples and oranges !

      May 2, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  14. dfobare

    Cone just hates white people.

    April 30, 2012 at 5:55 pm |
    • Chris

      Exactly what I was thinking. His history is undeniable and tragic, and so is his hate.

      April 30, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • northern light

      "A crowd gathers in Marion, Indiana, in 1930 to witness a lynching."

      And he has cause.

      May 1, 2012 at 5:05 pm |
  15. DrewNY6

    "I’m concerned about the suffering of all people, not just black people. If anybody is being treated unjustly, I’m with them."

    I wonder if he sympathizes with the LGBT community, or if it's only other Christians.

    April 30, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • Clyde

      The plain fact of the matter is that there are bad seeds in EVERY race, EVERY culture, and EVERY nation. The proponents of hate are everywhere...but in NO case are they the majority of people. Quit trying to pigeon-hole everyone becuase of the actions of one person.

      May 2, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
    • Clyde

      The plain fact of the matter is that there are bad seeds in EVERY race, EVERY culture, and EVERY nation. The proponents of hate are everywhere...but in NO case are they the majority of people. Quit trying to pigeon-hole everyone because of the actions of one person.

      May 2, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  16. John

    I was worried that the evangelical atheist hatred was going to bypass the story because they would appear to be too unPC. But no worries on that. 🙂

    April 30, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  17. Your Panties in Texas

    All of the Jews are fleeing from Egypt. What should we do?

    April 29, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • Tim

      Wait 40 years.

      April 30, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  18. MalcolmXcrement

    Another uppity mud monkey that never learned his place....

    April 29, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
    • Your Panties in Texas

      Not Very Nice of you to say that.

      April 30, 2012 at 12:43 am |
    • Vicki

      you are an idiot!

      April 30, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • mom

      takes a monkey to recognise one...sad!

      April 30, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
    • tony

      You are the lowest of all dogs to make such a nasty low down statement. You hide behind the key board. I challenge you to come out and make yourself known.

      April 30, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • kallikat

      I suppose you think "his place" is beneath YOU, but you are totally wrong...no one belongs in that place!

      May 2, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Bogart 47

      Where is "his place", MalcomXcrement? Maybe in your daughters, AND wife's mouth! Probably yours too! Yeah, you've wondered too

      May 2, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
  19. BiRaGirl

    The population of the United States in 1880 was 50,189,209.
    The population of the United States in 1940 was 142,164,569.
    5,000 lynchings in 60 years is equal to around 83 lynchings (murders) per year, across the country, for that period.
    Get the facts straight. It's sad Cone had to grow up with that injustice, and there are others who grew up with injustices, too; but, he makes it sound as if it was an everyday atrocity. It was not.

    Please. Can we move on from this collective anger, guilt and association?
    The Nation will not heal, and the scab will continue to be picked, until we move out of this past blame place. Very few who were at a lynching, or who lost a loved one because of a lynching, are alive today. Put it into the history books and move forward.

    April 29, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • John

      That you consider 83 racially motivated murders a year for 60 years tolerable really says a lot about the kind of person you are. I sincerely hope you don't or never will have children.

      April 29, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • mom

      easy for you to say becaue you descend from the side of the lynchers? just put it behind youy. you stare out your window and watch people being killed. and down the road you just get over it? not that easy dear!

      April 30, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • northern light

      If you think a public lynching every 6 days is not out of the ordinary then you need some serious
      help.......of the mental therapy type.

      May 1, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
    • reallyseriously?

      People forget that there were both public and private lynchings in the south until mid to late 1960's. The first fully desegregated schools weren't built in many southern states until the 1970's. That's 40 to 50 years ago–so it's still fresh in the minds of the baby-boomer's kids.

      May 2, 2012 at 4:28 am |
  20. Joe Cogan

    “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?”

    Two very good questions, both easily answered by recognizing that "God" isn't real.

    April 29, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • northern light

      "“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?”"

      First question answer:
      The church is a club....and the club has rules ....to enter you must be white and have money .....

      Second question answer:
      You should not be suffering ......why would you want to be among a group of deluded people who belive that there is a magic man in the sky ......who only takes care of people like them.

      You are much better off on the golf course on Sunday morning.......except of the golf course where they play the Masters in Augusta Georgia.....where you are also not permitted to bring your wife..

      May 1, 2012 at 5:21 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.