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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. Tom

    It's the faces of the crowd that haunts me. Those smiling, those threatening, those detached from the reality that is before them. And I think of the reality of words spoken today by so many that is a continuation of what I see in that picture. If only those who still harbor the past were forced to look at that picture daily, maybe, just maybe, there hearts would change.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • JT

      They view these lynched black men as subhuman, animals, devils.

      April 22, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • RhapsodyNblue

      As much as I objected to the posting of that photo without a graphic content advisory, I do agree that photo is haunting. Your words of wisdom to those who unfortunately probably won't listen are appreciated nonetheless.

      April 22, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • T Stevenson

      Now you know why black men are so overly sensitive when it comes to racism. We know what lives in the hearts of men, and we will never let it happen again. I keep my finger on the trigger.

      April 22, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  2. UsingTheRaceardToGetWhatYouWant

    Blacks use the race card as a sword, not a shield.The end.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  3. Michael

    CNN = RACE CARD

    April 22, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  4. Lush

    The truth is ugly but CNN is even more ugly for presenting it the way they do. Shame on CNN. It is obvious they are trying to divert our attention from our oversized government and the lack of solutions concerning the budget crisis. Not to mention we still have troops in Afghanistan. This is a cheap way to do it by trying to incite race wars. I hope all races see through it.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  5. Kevin Barbieux

    Why CNN do you not allow my comments to appear?

    April 22, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  6. Glenn

    CNN Stirring up more Hate. Most of your readers weren't even born in the 60's. Can't we move on already.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • Tom

      The reality in my experience is that racism is still rampant. It is fueled by those that express disdain for others but do not understand the utter difficulty of overcoming hundreds of years of discrimination that continues to this day. In many cases it is those of religion that are the most to dissapoint.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:56 am |
    • T Stevenson

      Take away Fox News, Glenn Beck, Rush Lim"butt", Ted Nuggett and the right wing extremist of the GOP, and maybe we can talk about moving on....

      April 22, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  7. reliablepanda

    This photo was taken 82 years ago.A certain group will still use it 82 years later to justify their ineptness and lack of responsibility.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  8. MaximumBob

    Look at all those lynchings performed by the official terrorist wing of the democrat party.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • .

      All done in the name of fairness.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • T Stevenson

      ....they all belong to the tea party now. Sarah Palin is their leader..

      April 22, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  9. watash60

    best way is to get the boats loaded and headed east across the Atlantic

    April 22, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • .

      Have a nice trip!

      April 22, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • T Stevenson

      You can jump on the boat with them and go back to Europe. You don't deserve to be a citizen.

      April 22, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  10. RhapsodyNblue

    I'm finding it harder and harder to believe some of you actually read the article.
    Cony's perspective seems more focused on the role of the church, white or black, in the civil rights movement and subsequent years.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:42 am |
    • RhapsodyNblue

      lol. It would help if I spelled the guy's name right. My apologies to Rev. Cone.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  11. BlackPanters-KKK-oneandthesame

    Why would all those people mill around and NOT cut the poor fellows down???

    April 22, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  12. tom b

    Yet ANOTHER CNN race based story. Don't misunderstand that was a disgusting and horrific period in the 30's but the fact is that TODAY in 2012 sadly other black males are 20x more of a threat to other black males than a white religious freak/bigot or dopey neighborhood watchmen. Why doesnt CNN ever do a story about the lack of accountibilty that perpetuates the epidemic of black on black violence?

    April 22, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  13. Alan

    Can we have one day without the race card?

    April 22, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Malkum

      @Alan, when you are a racial minority in America, the race card is played on you daily. You are constantly reminded of your position, status, how you are viewed, and estimated. Your successes are seen as the exception while your failure is considered typical and expected. You are guilty til proven innocent both in society and in the courts. Your "A+" work is downgraded to a "C". There is less margin for error and unlike your white counterparts, you are not given the benefit of the doubt. No one complains when our Jewish brothers constantly retell the horrors of the Holocaust, and in fact its study is encouraged. They even coined the slogan" Never Forget". America would love to forget its own atrocities to black and native Americans. So yes Alan, racism is alive and well and as long as it effects lives it will be fought against. So join us in the fight! This is my invitation to you to stand up for what is right. If you don"t like racial charged discussions, then work to eliminate racism so we don't have to have these uncomfortable conversations. We don't like this stuff anymore than you do! But if we ignore it Nd sweep it under history's rug, justice will not be done and it will inevitably repeat itself. Thank You.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • T Stevenson

      Nope, not as long as spades keep getting killed. RIP Trayvon Martin.

      April 22, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  14. Mike

    Cone insinuates lynching as a common social event, yet his own statistics show it to be rare:
    "Between 1880 and 1940, Cone says, an estimated 5,000 black men and women were lynched. "

    During that same period, we killed 100x as many non-black people for 1000x dumber reasons.

    #sympathyfail

    April 22, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  15. J

    Great .. some more crap about how the whites did the blacks wrong .. yes it did happen .. over now .. pull you heads out of the past .. stop blaming the present whites for what was done then .. new flash .. we did not do it ... stop expecting us to apologize for being white .. enough is enough .. get a grip.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  16. Rainer Braendlein

    "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.

    Black and white people need a Redeemer, who takes care of them.

    Recently I have studied the Epistle to the Romans by St. Paul and figured out the following:

    There is historical and spiritual evidence that man is not able to be tender by nature. The socalled sin is the opposite of love. Once God said to Israel, when he appeared on Sinai: "you shalt not, you shalt not, you shalt not, ... " The people of Israel behaved in a way, which caused God's comment: "you shalt not!" This means they were not in a blissful state of love or state of health. Yet at Sinai the Jews should have admitted their sinfulness or lovelessness and ask for deliverance.

    Yet at oldtestament times it was possible to get saved by faith (see Abraham, Jakob and Isaac and others).

    The point is that man (not only the Jews) is that sinful that he needs the constant support of a divine person, in order to be able to love God and his neighbour, that means not to sin. When Jesus lived visible on earth, he was the person of the Godhead, which strengthened his disciples to do works of righteousness and love, despite their sinful body. Today is it the Holy Spirit, which we can receive by sacramental baptism (we need to get born by Water and Spirit, in order to become able to love God and our neighbour).

    So, this is Jesus' primary message and was yet the message of Jahveh: "Dear weak man, you need a Redeemer, who helps you to love God and your neighbour. You are not able to love by natural power!"

    Gospel: God, the Father, delivered God, the Son, for our sins and raised him from the dead for our justification.

    Believe that and get sacramentally baptized or remember your infant baptism and you will receive the powerful Spirit of Love, which is stronger than your selfish flesh.

    Consequences of the gospel:

    – it is an atonement for previous sins

    – it shows God's love to the mankind, because Jesus died for the people, when they had not yet believed in him

    – we have died and resurrected with him: we are dead for the sin and in him (this becomes true through baptism, where we get connected with Christ's dead and resurrection)

    When we behave loveable in the power of the Spirit to everybody (even our enemies), we can commend our cases to the Lord, the Almighty, who will create righteousness at any rate. God will liberate us from oppression, no matter if we are black or white.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:39 am |
  17. .

    The lynchings are over. Now they're killing themselves in da hood because someone looked at someone da wrong way.

    Darwin was right.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • T Stevenson

      Darwin was right. So that's why asians get higher test scores than you...... Dummy.

      April 22, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  18. Alicia

    cnn never misses an opportunity to dredge up the past for the sole purose of inciting everyone.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:38 am |
    • .

      While they totally ignore the hopelessness that has gripped African Americans ever since the liberal pseudo intelligentsia decided they were going to help make things fair.

      Liberalism is a mental disorder. All it creates is malaise.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:40 am |
  19. splasher6

    wow CNN why don't you hire Al Sharpeton as well...

    April 22, 2012 at 8:37 am |
  20. RichardNixon

    What do you know...another story about race on CNN.It's sad what CNN has been reduced to.Guess this is why their ratings are in the toilet.Oh well, time to run.Goodbye.

    April 22, 2012 at 8:35 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.