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)
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    May 19, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Romnesia

      If that's your best shot at viral marketing, you'll be out of business soon

      February 20, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
  4. RiadaKram

    "Between 1880 and 1940, Cone says, an estimated 5,000 bl ack men and women were lynched." Well, that's about 10% of the number of whites murdered by bla cks in the last 25 years.

    May 14, 2012 at 10:54 am |
    • Babykitty

      It's not true, anyway. Of the almost 5000 people lynched during that time period, only about 3500 were black.

      May 15, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • James Matthews III

      Your stats of Blacks murdering whites over the last 25 years are highly suspect and unfounded. If you are making a comparisom I'd match your figures and raise you the 3 to 5 million Blacks murdered and tortured by white in the U.S. from the 1675 to the present day.

      August 13, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  5. DixT

    "Jesus' primary message, he said, wasn't about getting people to heaven, but liberating people here and now from oppression – racial, economic and spiritual."

    This is an UNTRUTH! Jesus NEVER spoke of "racism" or "oppression!" The ONLY oppression Jesus spoke of, was those "oppressed by the Devil." Jesus NEVER spoke of "improving the economics of the poor." Instead, he said: "The poor you will always have with you." It was the Disciples, after Jesus left this earth, who took up collections for the poor, as they went from town to town-they took up collections for FOOD -not "luxuries" like ipods, expensive tennis shoes, etc!

    In His teaching ministry, Jesus DID point the poor "to heaven" and to their sinful natures-that was the crux of His entire ministry.

    May 14, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • ahemahem

      That version of Jesus is responsible for American civil religion that allows for aboriginal genocide, slavery, Jim Crow and other forms of supremacy.

      April 23, 2013 at 10:33 pm |
  6. jdun

    If you lived through that time you have a right to be angry, reverend. And, we are not that far removed from lynching, segregation, oppression and poll taxes. The language of the right encompasses intolerance and racism, wants us to get back to an earlier time in history, and lays blame for today's problems at the feet of the poor, minorities and the elderly. Speak up, but don't forget women's rights as well.

    May 14, 2012 at 8:15 am |
  7. Rumpel Stiltskin

    Only 5000? I would have thought a lot more were lynched the way they carry on about it. Shoot–black people kill or maim 5000 a day now in just a few cities.

    The whites had to do something to contain them. Look at every town/country led by black people. It's a hell hole. They are far too selfish to make anything work in a a group. Just look at the video someone posted and ask yourself if you would feel safe there. Be honest and don't be politically correct. Would you want your teen going alone to that fair?

    May 14, 2012 at 6:44 am |
    • jdun

      Wow, you KKK members are still out there!

      May 14, 2012 at 8:17 am |
  8. Locksmith

    When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property. (Exodus 21:20-21 NAB)

    Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. (Ephesians 6:5 NLT)

    Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed. If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful. You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts. Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them. (1 Timothy 6:1-2 NLT)

    The servant will be severely punished, for though he knew his duty, he refused to do it. "But people who are not aware that they are doing wrong will be punished only lightly. Much is required from those to whom much is given, and much more is required from those to whom much more is given." (Luke 12:47-48 NLT)

    Clearly, if the bible says slavery is ok, why aren't white churches not pushing for it??? They push against gay marriage right? Seems fair to get slavery back in this country then...

    P.S. I am not for slavery, I am making a point.

    May 14, 2012 at 5:02 am |
    • Thinking

      I was reading this article for a paper and just happened to look at the comments. Did someone REALLY look up all the scriptures about slaves and then say we should get slavery back in the country but they are not for slavery? Did I also read that someone feels that black cities are hell holes. I am surprised that people who hate black people read about African American history. All black neighborhoods are not like that. It is my belief that we are suffering from a trickle down effect of being impoverished from the time our ancestors were brought here until now. It really makes no sense to capture millions, bring them to a foreign country, make them build and maintain a nation only to despise them so much and kill them instead of returning them home. My great great grandfather was from the Caribbean. He never asked to be brought here. Then to get here and be abused and misused. I am will not make excuses for people, none of my ancestors went to school and I have a degree. They were share croppers. I work a full time job and own a business. It is our duty to make sure that the life they lived was not in vain. We are here now. So those who spend their life time might as well get used to seeing, hearing and knowing who we are. Thank you James Cone!

      February 20, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
  9. &^%$#@!


    So how many felonies/murder(s) happened at the fair?

    May 14, 2012 at 12:01 am |
  10. n00p

    I often hear criticism about ministers who haven't pushed to envelope or shown wisdom by challenging the system – as was certainly the case during Jim Crow. As is the case now with gay marriage.

    However, I feel these statements fundamentally miss the purpose of the pulpit. Ministers are not there to push the envelope. They are there partly to help explain our current world. Partly to help communicate a Biblical message. And partly to run the business of the church by insuring enough money ends up in the till.

    None of these things have to do with challenging the social norms or changing the beliefs of their followers. To challenge the followers, risks alienating the followers. To alienate the followers, hurts the church.

    Pushing the envelope is therefore not in the job description.

    May 13, 2012 at 11:34 pm |
    • ahemahem

      That version of Jesus is responsible for American civil religion that allows for aboriginal genocide, slavery, Jim Crow and other forms of supremacy.

      You might learn from Wilberforce or MLKjr.

      Or Demond Tutu.

      April 23, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
  11. ug

    Just hanging around...

    May 13, 2012 at 7:58 pm |
  12. Javares

    funny thing is the Black Church is the same as the white church. Got the book from whites. see dr king quoted from the whites

    May 13, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
  13. glenda

    When I sit and look at all of the comments posted in response to this article, I cant help but to think, wow we as a nation have come so far with the issue of racism . (Sarcasm)
    It is all in your actions and harmful words.
    Now for those of you who didnt post anything mean, thoughtless, insensitive- then this does not include you!
    Let me just point out however....a good portion of the comments are racist (mean spirited) black and white

    May 13, 2012 at 4:46 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.