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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. Mark Couvillion

    FACT: There were as many lynchings outside of the South. The photo featured was taken in Marion, Indiana! The elite media should step down from their ivory tower, stop bashing the South, and examine their own intolerance and bigotry.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:17 am |
    • 13directors

      Come on, Mark, we all know that it was primarily the South that had their heels dug in deep. Yes, racism existed everywhere there, but it was prominent in the South. Does the Missouri Compromise mean anything to you?

      April 22, 2012 at 8:31 am |
    • El Flaco

      There were many lynchings outside the South. There were many more lynchings inside the South. The South has an ugly history when it comes to Black people. Nazi Germany's brief 15 year flash of existence looked like a game of patty-cake compared to the three century history of the southern states.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  2. E. Brunson

    You know, I find this story a bit off. Why is it that a picture from a so-called lynching in Indiana is using to illustrate a story that discusses lynching in Arkansas and the South? Furthermore, the men hanging both appear to be white. Another example of CNN inciting racial tensions, just like NBC. I am sick of the media pandering to Afro side. Let's get back to balanced reporting and quit digging around in the ashes and speculating on what did and did not happen 50-70 years' ago. This type of article does nothing but sir up emotions–something the White House wants right now.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • 13directors

      Yeah, becaue 50-70 years was like ago so long ago. I mean, jeez, aren't all those people dead by now? I don't hear many people ever suggesting that the Jews should just move on.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  3. Dave Harris

    The point he seems afraid to make is what a fraud all religion is. Religion in the hands of ignorant, racist, criminally violent people just becomes a rationalization to commit the crimes they're going to commit anyway. The hyperreligious don't routinely lynch blacks anymore, but they want to start wars and torture prisoners and generally persecute anybody they consider to be not holy enough for their vile leaders. It never really changes.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • aginghippy

      Dave, I have always found it tragic that African Americans embraced the religion of their white slave masters. Not only is Christianity a myth, like all religions, but the Bible was interpreted by white Christians to validate their treatment of black people. The Bible has references to God himself indicating that people of color are less than human and that their black pigmentation is an indication that they are not loved as light skinned people are. Some believe that Cain married a "non-human" of black sin color. Others believe that black skin was a punishment for some offense to God. The KKK was made up of good Christian men who could lynch a black man on Saturday night, then take the family to church on Sunday morning.
      Not one African man or woman brought here was a Christian. They adapted the faith of their owners, somehow ignoring the blatant hypocrisy of it all. The author of this piece is still angry over the actions or lack of action of people long dead. Yet he still clings to the religion that not only condoned the atrocities but, for some, justified it. It boggles the mind.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • closet atheist

      Ignorance is bliss!!

      Isn't it crazy and strange how indoctrination (brainwashing) works...?!?

      April 23, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
  4. Thomas

    Great story!

    April 22, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  5. Joe public1

    Thank you Mr. Cone for sharing your story, which is really OUR story. The truth hurts! You can see it by the way some people react to this story with bile and rage! It's too painfully for SOME whites to acknowledge the ugly truth. In their minds eye, they will flip anything you say into a racially devicive anti-white hate speech. Haters did the same thing to Dr. M.L. King and now he is forever memorialized in Washington DC an undisputed American hero.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:13 am |
  6. abirdinbloom

    Enough. I don't like reading articles that keep hatred fresh on our minds. Sounds like he hated a lot too.

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

    Fan the flames whenever possible. CNN special. The picture is unnecessary. Many, including children, have access to this blog. Note the picture is from Indiana not Mississippi where the largest number of lynchings occur. Whites were also lynched in much smaller numbers. I love this post racial USA.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:10 am |
    • abirdinbloom

      I agree.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • NamDebra

      Fanning the flames seems to be all CNN is good @ these days.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:20 am |
    • RhapsodyNblue

      Glad someone else complained about the lack of warning about the explicit and disturbing posted photos as I did previously.
      I had children in the room when I opened the link!

      April 22, 2012 at 8:21 am |
    • Eric C.

      I agree! What value is there in fanning the flames of hatred and jarring our psyche with such a painful image? Be responsible, CNN!

      April 22, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  8. martog

    Rather than inculcating our children with the primary-color simple Sunday school legends and myths most people do, might I suggest the following ten comandments to enable them to think for themselves.
    1. DO NOT automatically believe something just because a parent, priest, rabbi or minister tells you that you must.
    2. DO NOT think that claims about magic and the supernatural are more likely true because they are written in old books. That makes them less likely true.
    3. DO analyze claims about religion with the same critical eye that you would claims about money, political positions or social issues.
    4. DO NOT accept it when religious leaders tell you it is wrong to question, doubt or think for yourself. It never is. Only those selling junk cars get frightened when you want to "look under the hood".
    5. DO decouple morality from a belief in the supernatural, in any of its formulations (Christianity, Judaism, Islam etc.). One can be moral without believing in gods, ghosts and goblins and believing in any of them does not make one moral.
    6. DO a bit of independent research into whatever book you were brought up to believe in. Who are its authors and why should I believe them in what they say? How many translations has it gone through? Do we have originals, or only edited copies of copies of copies– the latter is certainly true for every single book in the Bible.
    7. DO realize that you are only a Christian (or Hindu or Jew) because of where you were born. Were you lucky enough to be born in the one part of the World that “got it right”?
    8. DO NOT be an apologist or accept the explanation “your mind is too small to understand the greatness of god” or “god moves in mysterious ways” when you come upon logical inconsistencies in your belief. A retreat to mysticism is the first refuge of the cornered wrong.
    9. DO understand where your religion came from and how it evolved from earlier beliefs to the point you were taught it. Are you lucky enough to be living at that one point in history where we “got it right”?
    10. DO educate yourself on the natural Universe, human history and the history of life on Earth, so as to be able to properly evaluate claims that a benevolent, mind-reading god is behind the whole thing.
    I sometimes think that, if we first taught our children these simple guidelines, any religion or other supernatural belief would be quickly dismissed by them as quaint nostalgia from a bygone era. I hope we get there as a species.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:10 am |
    • Scott

      You go at it as a 'species' while the rest of us handle life as men and women K?

      April 23, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  9. Rideitout

    It's because of the churches, we had George W. for 8 years.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:09 am |
  10. rosethornne

    “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?”

    1. They're full of bigots.
    2. The sky fairy doesn't exist.

    So why does this guy, a bigot himself, spend his life getting his panties all in a bunch? How does his festering hatred accomplish anything positive?

    Simple: it doesn't.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • JT

      I saw that quote and thought the same thing. Please await the bogus "free will" wild card to be played.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:18 am |
    • Rob

      Nice.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  11. &^%$#@!

    Tragicly, the past is alive and well.
    http://smoothstone.blogspot.com/2007/04/al-sharpton-is-racist-and-jew-basher.html

    April 22, 2012 at 8:06 am |
    • Jim

      "Tragically", you never learned to spell.

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

    The lynchings are gone. Now it's the economic malaise that has created the culture of hopelessness and murder in cities like Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami.

    And all CNN wants to do is look at racism that no longer exists.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:01 am |
    • Liligi

      LOL yes... racism that no longer exists. And yet two men just went to prison for life in Texas for lynching a black man by running him over with their truck repeatedly. This happened just last week, if I remember correctly. It was on the front page of CNN.com. But I'm sure you and your selective memory that you've so conveniently inherited from your ancestors have forgotten that already.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:12 am |
    • Ceasar

      If someone killed your father don't tell me you will not be living in the pass. You people are so heartless it is sickening.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  13. Taxpayer

    Sounds to me like he is living in the past. A historical perspective is OK so that we learn therefore history hopefully will not repeat itself. Other than that....let it go.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:00 am |
  14. El Flaco

    No amount of theological hand-wringing is going to change a thing.

    Theologians make up stuff in their heads. "I think God believes so-and-so. I think God wants us to do this-or-that thing."

    Then they write down a narrative of their imagainary conversation with God for other theologians to read.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:57 am |
  15. Jt_flyer

    We forget that Berry Goldwater – elected in 5-term republican senator to Arizona (no less), Referred to as "Mr.. Conservative" for much of the 20th century, was FOR: Pro choice, separation of church and state, and gay rights. The once progressive republican party that freed the slaves, has now been hijacked by religious, fundamental, extremists. The takeover bagan in 1980 and has grown ever since. This election is perhaps one of the most importan in American history.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:56 am |
    • El Flaco

      But other Conservatives did not follow Goldwater on those issues. Other Conservatives remained as closed-minded about those issues as do the modern right-wing lunatics who call themselves Conservative.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:59 am |
    • Mirosal

      If you want to talk "Conservative", look no further than Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms. 'nuff said

      April 22, 2012 at 8:07 am |
    • closet atheist

      We need the progressive/moderate conservative movement back. I hate being a "conservative" right now, but feel that we have a fiscal obligation to do so. It's just sickening that the warmongering christian right has taken over somehow.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
  16. Dennis Gareis

    Another good job by CNN of keeping anger alive and stirring up race relations.Never mind the last lynching was over 70 years ago.Nothing sells like race baiting..Come to think of it,why no comments by Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson????

    April 22, 2012 at 7:53 am |
  17. VVVVV

    Since the Zimmerman incident many have pointed out many different incidences of black on white violence that has happened. History is just the same. Our society focuses on the hanging incident, when just as many if not more violent acts happened the other way around in the past too. It was no different then that it is now. You can learn about what they aren't telling you about history by what they aren't telling you now.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:53 am |
  18. El Flaco

    My mother's grandfather told her that he watched a Black man being burned at the stake for raping a White woman. My grandfather told her that he knew that what the angry group of White Methodist farmers was doing was wrong, but he was afraid to confront them and talk them out of killing the man. After the fire was set, he walked away, unable to watch.

    This was in east Texas, probably in the very early 1900's.

    April 22, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  19. olby2k

    The problem with Cone is that he is stuck in the past. He lives with memories, happy and obviously sad memories of his childhood. Now, as Christians we are called to live in the present. Today blacks are welcome in any white church, the president of the United States is black. lets stop living in the past and be thankful and advance the gains of the present.

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

    So didn't Jesus say "My kingdom is no part of this world"? Why therefore do "Christian Leaders" like Al, Pat and Jesse get politically involved? Wouldn't Jesus be a little upset with this? Who offered him the kingdoms of the earth? Wasn't that Satan? So, who controls the puppet governments of the world today? Wouldn't that again be, Satan?

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

      What are you, the "Church Lady"? There is as much evidence to prove "Satan" is real as there is to prove your "god", or even Zeus for that matter, are real... which is ZERO

      April 22, 2012 at 8:10 am |
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