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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. Randy

    There are good people and there are rascists amongst every ethnic group. When you start stereotyping any single ethnic group, such as whites or blacks, then you are becoming a rascist yourself.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • DarkAges

      Well Randy, why did you write whites before blacks? Practice what you preach brother. Common sense tells you that alphabetically b is before w.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:52 am |
    • Jim

      Alphabetically?........are you serious?

      April 22, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  2. Blogifer

    Every country has its dark ages. Christianity tells us there is a cosmic war between good and evil in progress. Eventually Christ will return to stop the evil according to the Bible.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • Ronald Hussein Reagan

      Sorry, Dude. THe struggle is between BAD and EVIL. As far as how t turns out I can only say it's tooo early to tell.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  3. jPet

    CNN... a bunch of hypocrites. Had to stop showing us the images of 9/11. Too inflammatory. No problem though with these photos. Get over it. We need to be looking at today's problems, not those of previous centuries.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:46 am |
  4. Sean C.

    I hope I live to see the day when a person is judge not by the color of their skin, the makup of their physiology, or the gender of their preference but by the content of their character.

    Sadly, that isn't the world we live in today. Blacks hate whites for the sins of their fathers, whites hate blacks for the sins of their children, and everyone else hates them both equally. You people in the comments simply serve to prove this point.

    What happened to equality? What happened to the abolition of segregation? Do you people not realize you're simply repeating history? Do you not recognize that your stereotypes have been and will be the cause of self-segregation? Do you not see how racist your behavior is?

    It's not corporate executives, politicians, and liars at the root of society's current problems, its Whites. It's not gang-bangers, drug addicts, and hoodlums at the root of society's problems, it's Blacks.

    Did people forget what the Civil Rights movement was for?

    What the Hell happened to MLK's Dream?

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

      You people! What do you mean "you people!?"

      April 22, 2012 at 7:49 am |
    • Jim

      It was a punch line, not a dream.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:51 am |
    • Michelle

      I was just having the same thought, excellent point.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:02 am |
    • Michelle

      I read "you people" as society", releax not everything it meant to be directed toward one enthic group.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:06 am |
  5. Howie76

    My Grandparents had a cabin on the Tom Bigby river in Mississippi. I was 4 years old when across the river you could see a stream of torches. We were told to turn out all the lights and be quite because it was the KKK and a black man would die that night. There was no celebration from my family nor did they speak up. I have always been haunted by what took place that night which would be my worse imagination. My grandparents were "good" christians and knew this was wrong and never spoke up. The church needs to stop the prosperity preaching and go back to what the Bible really says. These thugs need to be brought to justice and this still goes on to this day.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:44 am |
  6. tnmilfman

    In the immortal words of Leonard Pitts, "Cry me a river." The only thing I regret is that Jim Crow is over!

    April 22, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • DarkAges

      How do you have an internet connection at your shack you share with your sister/wife in the Smokey Mountains?

      April 22, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • Jesse L

      You see what I mean? We can't live in a land of peace, perfection and live and let live when you have people in world that hate and will kill you for who you are and what you look like. If you can find that place let me know. I'd love to live in it but lets be real and not hide such ignorance tnmilfman just displayed doesn't exist in the world.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:10 am |
  7. Daniela

    As a white woman, I am devastated that our ancestors could be so awful (there is really no word to describe their actions and awful I know does not do it justice). The smiles in the pictures are mortifying...it is just a sickening thing to look at. The pictures on CNN are really not appropriate either -while there is no denying this happened, I'm not sure these pictures are appropriate for all to see.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:38 am |
    • jon

      Thats the exact reaction the liberal media wants from you. Keep you apologetic even though none of your ancestors had anything to do with this. Likewise they need to keep young blacks hating white people

      April 22, 2012 at 7:40 am |
    • Jim

      I think you should hang yourself as a protest against "man's inhumanity to man". That would teach everybody a lesson!

      April 22, 2012 at 7:54 am |
    • RhapsodyNblue

      I agree with regard to the explicit nature of the photographs, especially as they load immediately at the top of the page without warning. An advisory should have been posted next to the link on the homepage. I'm disappointed in CNN's lack of consideration.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  8. Variaballistic

    Drugs and gangs are just the symptoms. Drugs are just chemical compounds. Gangs are just groups of people with too much free time on their hands, no money, and no jobs.
    I think that if we just spent half of what we blithely hand over to the "justice" and incarceration industries (who have an extremely vested interest and the power to make it worse)...and instead took it and spent it on putting as many of them as possible to work for livable wages, then I think we would see a thousand-fold decrease in drug abuse and "gang" activity.

    It's not going to work for every person, but it's addresses more of the roots of the problem as nothing else is doing.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • jon

      So by your logic people become criminals because they "have too much time on their hands". That is probably the dumbest comment I read today

      April 22, 2012 at 7:42 am |
    • goldenmoral

      you are exactly right. A big problem in Europe is kids hanging around in the cities and turning to criminal activity, because they do not have jobs and start getting into trouble.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:54 am |
    • Eric

      It costs about $60K/yr. to incarcerate someone, so how about we just give the convict the money instead? Yeah. That'll take care of the problem. He won't even have to work. Problem solved.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  9. cas

    Wow, white folks are weird!

    April 22, 2012 at 7:36 am |
  10. Jesse L

    The people that say "I wasn't there when It happened. That was my grandparents I can't speak for them and this is not my issue" is a cop out and it sends a very bad omen that history will repeat itself if this topic is swept under the rug. There are many in this world today that hold the same racial animosity and hatred of past generations and they in turn will pass that shrill onto their children till we have another Trail of Tears, another Holocaust, another Apartheid and another Lynching . History is known to rear its ugly head and come back in inventive ways and those who choose to forget the actions of the past are the ones fanning the flames to repeat it.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:34 am |
    • VVVVV

      So let's teach history correct. We were two groups that committed violent acts against each other. Even with slavery, it wouldn't have happened if slaves weren't for sale and trade in Africa.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • DarkAges

      I bet you are one of those paranoid families on doomsday preppers. What is the purpose of wasting time on such negativity? People like you who cannot forget are the problem. As for me, I will live my life with a smile knowing the future is peaceful and harmonious. Woodstock is the history I hope will be repeated.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:41 am |
    • Jesse L

      Its not just two groups. A many or cultures have done barbaric acts to another for the sake of their race, ethnicity or religion and had the audacity to say they're a civilized, advanced people. Its the ones that say nothing, deny it happen, or sweep it under the rug, are no less guilty or excused from these acts of man.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:54 am |
  11. hawkeye

    Leave your God out of the equation theres no such thing

    April 22, 2012 at 7:33 am |
    • Butterbean

      Yea! We just appeared outta nowhere ya buncha dumdums

      April 22, 2012 at 7:36 am |
    • Keith

      That's what is at the heart of all evil-leaving God out. This nation has done a bang-up job of doing just that.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      Keith: Once again, there is NO evidence to support that your god exists, so it is quite easy to leave a fictional character out of the equation.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:40 am |
    • Jim

      @Butterbean Yes, and I think we'd best leave at "spontaneous generation". You seem ill equipped to handle a more complex explanation.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:01 am |
    • Eric's Momma

      My little boy Eric gotta gold of the computer again. He is off his meds today...poor SOB suffering from delusional paranoid schizophrenia. Sorry that he offended people. He will be beaten later.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  12. Cosmo

    So just how much do I owe you Blacks now? Let me know so I can get it in the Mail to ya.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:32 am |
    • Daniela

      From a white woman to you -get some class. Your comment is absolutely horrendous.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:39 am |
  13. DarkAges

    1st – There is no God, and I pity the people that cannot comprehend this. 2nd – Remaining bitter because of history does nothing to improve the situation of equality. The best solution is to forget about the Jim Crow era and move on. Nobody is owed anything because of history. Just smile, put your best foot forward, and feel fortunate you live in a different era. An era where opportunity exists for ALL who are willing to work for it. Our president is a BLACK man named Barak Hussein Obama! The civil rights struggle is over! Get over it and move on!

    April 22, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      Sadly they can't move forward. They are not capable of thinking for themselves and as with every other issue, they turn to their buybull for support. If they'd learn that color is skin deep and in no way dictates how a person is in general they might not stay stuck in that way of thinking.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:39 am |
    • JustSaying2U

      To simply forget history is to fail to learn from it, and likely will repeat itself. I'll forget about it when I never see a Confederate flag...

      April 22, 2012 at 7:48 am |
  14. Butterbean

    Dadgummit!

    April 22, 2012 at 7:29 am |
  15. Butterbean

    What in tarnation is all the fussing about?

    April 22, 2012 at 7:29 am |
  16. Cosmo

    CNN cant go 1 week without stiring up an argument between the races.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:28 am |
  17. Butterbean

    Hogwash

    April 22, 2012 at 7:28 am |
  18. scama

    alls i have to say is that i'm glad that i'm rasing my kids to know that all races are racist. i've taught them that color has nothing to do with the way u talk or treat someone. if more people were up for eracing instead of encouraging it, then there wouldn't be so much hatred. parents should have stopped this 30+ yeas ago! but then again, ol al and jesse would b out of a job! this article just brings to light that instead of facing what happened to him as a boy and trying to make it better, he's justifing racisim. not to mention, CNN having a headline like this! if i had said this in the middle of a crowd, i know it would've started something.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  19. hawkeye

    There will not be another race riot what will happen is the media will have the blacks in such a frenzy over some white on black issues that the blacks will start burning the cities were they live then they will get arrested or killed and they will still blame it all on someone or something else

    April 22, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • Eric

      Just what the hell qualifies as a riot to you? Do they have to burn down someone elses city?

      April 22, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  20. Matthew

    I'm white and I think it's hilarious how many angry white fools post on these comment threads. What a massive case of denial. WHITE MEN ARE NOT VICTIMS. Grow up. Read some more history.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:26 am |
    • VVVVV

      History is not always correct. We were two groups that committed violent acts against each other. Whenever you read about 1 group being bad and the other one being good, it is almost always BS.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:31 am |
    • &^%$#@!

      http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/04/why-the-us-economy-is-biased-against-men/256023/
      http://www.thugreport.com/

      Lets give the liberal media a hand. They just ruined another Sunday.

      Bye

      April 22, 2012 at 7:36 am |
    • RevDana

      Matthew, I'm a white male also, and I agree with you 100% – Thank you!

      April 22, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • Jim

      I'm also white, and I can't believe how many liberal fools get taken in by trolling.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:09 am |
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