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. maestra730

    No longer relevant. He's just trying to make money now. How incredibly vile, and shame on CNN for trying to fan those terrible flames in order to concoct a headline.

    April 22, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • mikstov33

      Internet chat boards and blogs are the modern-day hoods of anonymity that used to be white and pointed. Lynchings by opinion and not by rope. Sooner or later we will figure out which is more dangerous.

      April 22, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  2. JJ

    Why is this being played over and over again?


    Could the reason be the Elections?

    CNN, you have an unfortunate agenda.

    April 22, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  3. martog

    Top Ten Signs You're a Christian
    10 – You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours.
    9 – You feel insulted and "dehumanized" when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.
    8 – You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Triune God.
    7 – Your face turns purple when you hear of the "atrocities" attributed to Allah, but you don't even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in "Exodus" and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in "Joshua" including women, children, and trees!
    6 – You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.
    5 – You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (few billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.
    4 – You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs – though excluding those in all rival sects – will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering. And yet consider your religion the most "tolerant" and "loving."
    3 – While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some idiot rolling around on the floor speaking in "tongues" may be all the evidence you need to "prove" Christianity.
    2 – You define 0.01% as a "high success rate" when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. And you think that the remaining 99.99% FAILURE was simply the will of God.
    1 – You actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the Bible, Christianity, and church history – but still call yourself a Christian.

    April 22, 2012 at 9:19 am |
    • shut_up

      you sure spread alot of psycho-babble trying to disprove there is only one GOD. you keep thinking that and i wont type so much. i will worship the only GOD and you can have the rest and see how you do at the end of time......................

      April 22, 2012 at 9:25 am |
    • Lilith

      @shut_up – it's always "psycho babble" to those who don't understand it. I'll take psycho-babble over religi-babble any day!

      April 22, 2012 at 9:29 am |
    • martog

      Psycho babble translation:Big words and concepts that are beyond my little brain so I'll just cover my eyes and maybe it will go away.

      April 22, 2012 at 10:08 am |
  4. ankenyman

    CNN, Keep that racial division alive and well! Your obsession with race is really sick. I'm done with CNN. You might as well be lynching George Zimmerman, since you ignore the picture of Zimmerman's bloody head because it upsets your agenda. Are you anti-Hispanic bigots? You have no integrity or credibility as a news agency. Apparently the racial angle is the only niche that is keeping you in business with your ratings always on the bottom of cable news.

    April 22, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • RhapsodyNblue

      exhibit A

      April 22, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • shut_up

      when did hangings go become lynchings??? did you ever see the show with clint eastwood, "hang em high" that didnt call it lynch em high LOL

      April 22, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  5. Did you notice ..

    .. that CNN didn't post the "your church sign photos" that said, " if we came from monkeys why do we still have monkeys"? Racism by omission?

    April 22, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  6. ken

    I live in FL. A black family moved into my neighborhood a couple of years ago. A family living on the opposite corner flies a Confederate flag on a pole and on their boat. The problem is not a perpetual apology to African-Americans. It's rednecks admitting their ancestors did something wrong in the first place.

    April 22, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • shut_up

      maybe the redneck was there before the blackneck. LOL LOL

      April 22, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • mikstov33

      I'll try again....Not all from the south are racists. I grew up in Tennessee, about 80 miles from where MLK was shot.Just by my past I would be considered a "redneck",because of my roots.I,too grow weary of the stereotyping so rampant in this society.If Zimmerman had been following a white man in Florida and shot him,would there be outrage and marches on behalf of the "poor redneck?"Doubtful.Most would pat him on the back and say "good job,Z"

      April 22, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  7. rtd604

    CNN execs are living in a bubble, daring anyone to knock the chip off their collective shoulder, because the way this story was presented, it divides more than repairs:Inflammatory.

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

    We don't like to look at this. Imagining communities not unlike those that exist today; who see themselves as good people, as righteous people, who are capable of looking at the gruesome scene shown here and smile. We worry that this picture is inappropriate for the eyes of our children, yet we read that children of the time would collect ears from lynch victims. How is this possible? The same folks who would find it scandalous when a woman leaves the house without a bra are entertained looking at the naked charred remains of a black man.

    To us, the thinking that dominated these white communities is so wrong that it almost seems impossible. You kind of have to see it to believe it.

    I'm sure that not every white person at the time had the conviction (or stomach) to participate, but as pointed out by Cone there was an ordinary tolerance for black suffering, even amongst the most progressive and outspoken of the time.

    What we don't like to face is what this says about ourselves. We want to say that we would have been different, and we like to explain this away with some simple human defect to which we imagine our modern humanism to be immune.

    After watching 'The Stoning of Soraya M' it left me unsettled in a similar way, and you realize the disgusting reality that depending on time and place where we were born that very few of us have enough love and even fewer of us have enough courage to keep from stoning our own mother; even when we know that she's done nothing wrong.

    I have to think that Cone's anger, though perhaps adversarial and self destructive is at least a glimmer of righteousness amidst a society blinded of their own sins. Hopefully we can take a lesson from this to fortify ourselves to love courageously in whatever way we can find and to adopt habits that pursue justice.

    April 22, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • Spike5

      Thank you for this thoughtful and perceptive comment.

      It's hard to believe that these events could have happened such a short time ago and yet...they did. We must always remember the atrocities that people just like us are capable of lest we allow them to happen again.

      April 22, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • rpTX

      Excellent post

      April 22, 2012 at 9:59 am |
  9. Mitch

    One question that is never addressed is, how many of those lynched - and whites were also killed in this way - were guilty?

    April 22, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • Tess Tosterone

      It's not politically correct to ask such questions.

      April 22, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • Jerry Phillips

      They were all guilty of being black and a few whites may have been guilty of supporting black people. When I look at Ted Nugent, I can see his face smiling at a lynching...

      April 22, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • Tess Tosterone

      Jerry Phillips, if some were white then they weren't "all guilty of being black" now were they. You intentionally missed the point of the question while trying to be politically correct.

      April 22, 2012 at 9:43 am |
    • Jerry Phillips

      By the above comment, I am not implying that Ted Nugent is a racist, that I do not know, I am only referring to the hate based rantings he spews. Hate is hate and to blame the victim of a lynching is that kind of self-righteous hate.

      April 22, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  10. rpTX

    These articles only incite the degenerates who are too uneducated and/or lack the mental capacity to understand our country's history and how it relates to where we are now. The ones of us with a brain, be that black, white, asian, hispanic, etc, have no problem reading these objectively. I've never once read something like this, gotten mad, and wanted to go out and crack the first person who's not of my race in the face. In fact, these articles make me want to learn more about when, why, and how these things happened in our nation's history. All of you who insist that these things simply not be talked about and/or not written on simply to prevent people from getting mad amaze me. Why do you think history is taught from grade school to the highest level degrees our academic system has to offer? You make it sound as if the solution to this is to simply not talk about it. Ever sat in a college-level history class? What do you think the profs talk about?All of the happy times in US history? Amazing...

    Yes, many more black men kill other black men than any other demographic, however, that point does not dismiss anything Cone said, people's feelings towards Zimmerman, nor does it dismiss any other racially-motivated crime. Doesn't matter who's the victim and who's the perp. It also amazes me how other races, mainly whites, refuse to recognize the "bad seeds" in their race. Last time I checked, most serial killers aren't blacks, midwest meth heads aren't blacks, the guy who blew up the OKC building wasn't black, kids shooting up schools aren't black, you don't read stories of black kids dragging old men through towns and/or running them over with trucks, etc. Whites simply act as if these people don't exist within their race, yet make it seem as though 100% of blacks are thugs, criminals, and living off of public assistance. There are also many more whites on public assistance than there are blacks. Granted that's a bit of a function of how our population is comprised, however, to act as if blacks are the problem here is moronic at best.

    April 22, 2012 at 9:13 am |
    • Liligi

      and a *golf clap* to you, Sir. I agree.

      April 22, 2012 at 9:19 am |
  11. Anne

    Wake up people! Racism is alive & kicking in the USA. Look at what happened when we had the Temerity to elect the first black president. He has done so much for this country in the short time he has been in office. If he were caucasian(I cant call anyone white as I have never seen a white person, paper is white) he would be 80% in the polls but you dont hear about his achievements but every nasty racist comment is used to attack him personally, from his skin color, where he was born, to his educational credentials.
    Inferior schools in black neighborhoods, racial profiling , blacks not welcome in certain neighborhoods etc .....contribute to the rest of the world viewing the USA as the last bastion of racism now that South Africa is no more!!! All the civil rights Act did was to say "you can no longer show your hatred in public" but its okay to privately teach your children to hate people whose skin is darker than yours. Thank you CNN for exposing the TRUTH that so many dont like to hear!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    April 22, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • Mitch

      I can't say I've ever seen a "black" person either, and that includes the exceedingly dark SS Africans selling jewelry on the street a few blocks from where I live.

      BTW, majority-black schools are "inferior" because most of their students are black. Word.

      April 22, 2012 at 9:16 am |
  12. mikstov33

    If by some miracle Romney wins this fall, CNN will change its tune.Sad but probably true.

    April 22, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  13. Rodeo_Joe

    RWA in America. RWA in Germany. RWA in China. RWA in Russia.

    If you are clueless about RWA, get a clue. Google it.

    April 22, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  14. Haley Behre

    Reblogged this on haleybehre.

    April 22, 2012 at 9:08 am |
  15. Rainer Braendlein

    By Christ the races can overcome their selfishness.

    "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 9:07 am |
  16. Ringo65

    I never heard of this guy, but I too find him interesting. The photo of the lynching is horrendous. That isn't even in the Deep South. Cone's remark about churches preaching prosperity over spirituality rings true from the little I see on TV. I'm not a Christian myself.

    April 22, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  17. Mrgreenjeans

    I am wondering what the modern "White Man" has to do to stop being used as a scapegoat for the evils of yesterday and today. Racism is not a disease that infects only whites. Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians are also racist. Give it a rest and stop throwing stones in a glass house.

    April 22, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  18. larvadog

    Mr. Cone said "there’s less talk about justice and more talk about prosperity."

    Mr. Cone is employing Old Testament theology. He should look to the New Testament, in which compassion reigns over all.

    April 22, 2012 at 9:05 am |
  19. .

    CNN is now the official news channel of racialism.

    That's why nobody watches.

    April 22, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • mikstov33

      So everyone is now tuning in to Rev. Al Sharpton on MSNBC? He has practically already lined Zimmerman up before the proverbial firing squad.

      April 22, 2012 at 9:15 am |
  20. Rainer Braendlein

    Black and white could love each other, if they would be "in Christ".

    Germans and Jews could love each other, if they would be "in Christ".

    Let us realize that Love is a living person (I mean that literally): Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit.

    By nature we are selfish and can only love ourselves. We need deliverance.

    April 22, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • Lilith

      How many of those standing in that pic were Christians (in Christ) and how many were Atheists? I bet i know the answer ... and so do you.

      April 22, 2012 at 9:25 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.