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.”

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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. Peterpan

    There are a lot of angry whites also. For what reason I have no exclamation except the analogy of spoiled children who now have siblings. i.e...a level playing field. Most of this anger revealed itself when Obama became president. I've never seen such hate before. It was actually kinda embarrassing for the US.

    April 22, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Tex Gritter

      Dear Petie: The Blacks could *NEVER* have elected Barak Obama all by themselves. Let's not pretend otherwise.....

      April 22, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Susie

      You see what you want. The vitrol against Obama surpassed only by the hate spewed against George Bush. I can remember the worst things being said about Ronald Reagan back when I was voting for Carter.

      April 22, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • Steve1959

      Did you ever ask?

      April 22, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • distractedwriter

      Bill Clinton and Al Gore got in their with a lot of blacks, too.

      April 22, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  2. Faithful

    This saddens me. As a Christian what happened during that time period saddens me greatly. God created us all in his image. White and Black are created in the image of God. Yet we have treated each other like this. This just proves we live in a fallen world. The only answer is Jesus Christ.
    Mr. Cone – I hope one day you can truly forgive those who did this to your family. Christ was innocent and was crucified. Yet he still forgave. Even when we were sinners Christ died for us! That is love. I pray that you can forgive and show the love of Christ to everyone.

    April 22, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • danielwalldammit

      I think the question is whether or not the Gospels have anything meaningful to say about such behavior, a means of countering them.

      April 22, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • Faithful

      1 Corinithians 13:4-7 – "Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at the wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."
      The biggest problem is that we are all sinful men. We are sinners and we need grace. This grace is only found in the work of Jesus Christ. See, once you have Christ in you and are living for Him, then 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 will begin to grow in your life and you will be able to respond in a loving way to people when this happens. Yes this is a tragic event in history. This will just continue to happen because we are sinners. But Christ promises peace. And when we receive Him, our response to these things are out of love. Just look at what the people did to Christ. And yet he responded by still dying for them to set them free from their sins. Look to Christ. Because this is Love.

      April 22, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • jamest297

      Don't forget Mohammed and Allah. Many in the world also consider them to be an answer if not THE answer.

      April 22, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • Faithful

      Jesus said I am the way the TRUTH and the Life. (John 14:6). Jesus Christ is THE ONLY source of hope for this lost world.

      April 22, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
  3. Lennie

    So true.

    April 22, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  4. Leo

    If CNN was really worried about the future rather than bringing up the terrible things of the past, they might want to raise the awareness up on some of these statistics! These are areas that we all should be trying to avoid.

    Abortion kills more black Americans than the seven leading causes of death combined, according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 2005, the latest year for which the abortion numbers are available.


    April 22, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • jamest297

      And yet, the knee grow population is still growing.

      I say we issue all people who can prove they have black blood in them a gun tomorrow morning. Then, next Monday, we give the remaining 50% another one. Repeat. In the third wee, release all the blacks from jail/prison and give them a gun too. In about 8 weeks, the problem will become basically manageable for another 35 years or so.

      April 22, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Gee, Leo, I guess the blacks who were lynched hanged themselves voluntarily, right?

      What color is the sky on your planet, where apparently women are forced to abort?

      April 22, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • Leo

      Tom, What part of "rather than bringing up the terrible things of the past" did you not understand?

      Every people group has done evil in the past, what matters is are we going to continue?

      April 22, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Nate (Seattle, WA)

      Abortion doesn't kill any black Americans.

      You are not an American until you are born.

      Get it through your heads, conservatives. A fetus is not a baby. Learn the difference.

      April 22, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • Leo

      James, your posts are stinking evil... All me are created equal!! Love your neighbor as yourself! When you think you are better than someone else, you simply verify that you are not.

      April 22, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • jamest297

      To Leo:

      I'm not evil, just Hispanic and I'm tired of the knee grows complaining and moaning and groaning that life ain't fair. Get off drugs, get an education and then get a job.

      April 22, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
  5. jamest297

    Not saying we need to bring lynching back yet, but we do need to let it go. IT can do no more harm so quit brining it up.

    April 22, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  6. Andrew

    "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 statement is so far from the truth. Thats what you get when completely biased people interpret the Bible, they only interpret what they want you to hear.

    April 22, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  7. E

    I am appalled that these photos got posted.

    History should be remembered, and acts such as these should never be repeated. So, I agree that reminders be provided.

    No. I am appalled that CNN would allow something so publicly accessible to children.

    Media usually warns viewers so that their children wouldn't be traumatized or impressed into such horrific acts.

    April 22, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  8. Claudine Chinetti

    I give up...censored again. One can look up what happened this night to Thomas Shipp and James Smith, and James Cameron (activist). "A Time of Terror"

    April 22, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Liz

      Must be difficult to find a photo of a klan hanging if all CNN has is a photo of two black boys being hanged for robbing and killing.

      April 22, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  9. dave

    Yo yo! I love to rap and dats no lie, I gave up dem dix and started chasin da pie! No more polishin and waxin dem knobs...from now on I be done with da corn cobs. Its just da box dat turns me on....every day of da month even if dey got pons! I pump da cooochie till it be so sore...my strap-on sausage be dusty no more! So that's my rhyme and u gotta be stoked, I just want da chicks and be done with the blokes!! See ya!

    April 22, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  10. Claudine Chinetti

    Have you heard the song, "Strange Fruit"? I just did for the first time. I wouldn't ever sing it. It is so disrespectful, and filled with even more humiliation for the dead. My outrage at it in the post I just tried to post was censored. So can you imagine? They want these men to be humiliated and disrespected in death even more apparently.

    April 22, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I doubt you CAN sing, Claudine. Furthermore, the song, made famous by the great, late Billie Hollday, was a setting of an ANTI-LYNCHING poem. Get a clue.

      April 22, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • Helpful Hints

      Claudine Chinetti, Your post was not censored per se - there is an automatic word filter at work here:

      Bad letter combinations / words to avoid if you want to get past the CNN automatic filter:
      Many, if not most, are buried within other words, so use your imagination.
      You can use dashes, spaces, or other characters to modify the "offending" letter combinations.
      ar-se.....as in ar-senic.
      co-ck.....as in co-ckatiel, co-ckatrice, co-ckleshell, co-ckles, etc.
      co-on.....as in rac-oon, coc-oon, etc.
      cu-m......as in doc-ument, accu-mulate, circu-mnavigate, circu-mstances, cu-mbersome, cuc-umber, etc.
      cu-nt.....as in Scu-nthorpe, a city in the UK famous for having problems with filters...!
      ef-fing...as in ef-fing filter
      ft-w......as in soft-ware, delft-ware, swift-water, drift-wood, etc.
      ho-mo.....as in ho-mo sapiens or ho-mose-xual, ho-mogenous, etc.
      ho-rny....as in tho-rny, etc.
      hu-mp… as in th-ump, th-umper, th-umping
      jacka-ss...yet "ass" is allowed by itself.....
      ja-p......as in j-apanese, ja-pan, j-ape, etc.
      koo-ch....as in koo-chie koo..!
      o-rgy….as in po-rgy, zo-rgy, etc.
      pi-s......as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, therapi-st, etc.
      p-orn… as in p-ornography
      pr-ick....as in pri-ckling, pri-ckles, etc.
      ra-pe.....as in scra-pe, tra-peze, gr-ape, thera-peutic, sara-pe, etc.
      se-x......as in Ess-ex, s-exual, etc.
      sp-ic.....as in desp-icable, hosp-ice, consp-icuous, susp-icious, sp-icule, sp-ice, etc.
      sp-ook… as in sp-ooky, sp-ooked
      ti-t......as in const-itution, att-itude, ent-ities, alt-itude, beat-itude, etc.
      tw-at.....as in wristw-atch, nightw-atchman, etc.
      va-g......as in extrava-gant, va-gina, va-grant, va-gue, sava-ge, etc.
      who-re....as in who're you kidding / don't forget to put in that apostrophe!

      There are more, some of them considered "racist", so do not assume that this list is complete.

      April 22, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  11. alfonds

    This was too wrong. If I knew that one of my relatives actually participated there, man I would feel so embarrassed and shameful.

    April 22, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • Realist

      Even if it were revealed that the executed were rapists or murderers?

      They didn't give the back story on the picture.

      April 22, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • Parnum Fohssah

      I see people claiming that those murdered people were robbers or ra.pists or murderers....yet since there was no trial, it's basically all bullcrap.

      When you don't have a fair trial, then whatever you claim is just so much made-up crap. Maybe they were bad, but without any evidence to prove it in a court of law, saying they were bad is a baseless thing to say.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
  12. dave

    Sung to da theme song on Cops: "gayboyz, gayboyz, what you gonna do, whatcha gonna do when I pound on you? Boy toyz, boy toyz, whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do when I blow my spooo. You just gonna take my tiny lil thang, it just might do if u never been bang!!.....dave"

    April 22, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  13. wills

    When I watched 2008 Republican party convention, prominent evangelist saying that if your father is a muslim you are a muslim in spite of your profession to be a christian then I knew this was coming . It keeps coming back because God is not pleased with our responses in the past .and present . lets make the future better

    April 22, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  14. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    April 22, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • Lilith

      Oh God I pray to thee ... "please stop Just Sayin' from continuing to spam us with this incessant nonsense."
      The spamming should stop in just a few minutes folks.

      April 22, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
    • just sayin

      Truth is not spam. God bless

      April 22, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      And spam isn't truth, fucktard. Here endeth the lesson.

      April 22, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • danielwalldammit

      Lol, He preaches prayer, but he practices spam.

      April 22, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  15. Mighty

    From reading most of these comments, most white people would be glad if those days are back, especially the white men. I would say at least 80%. They are filled with so much hate!

    April 22, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • jim

      Not me.

      April 22, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • IceT

      Mighty, it seems you have a problem with either reading comprehension or statistics or both.

      April 22, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Calvin1949

      It is unbelievable that no white pastors preached against this insanity. Surely there must have been someone somewhere
      who spoke up.

      April 22, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • puckles

      Actually it is YOU who are filled with hate.

      April 22, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  16. MS.LEAO

    Great commentary. Interesting that the two previous posters feel the need to defend their privilege and their kind instead of empathizing with pictorial and historical facts of their inhumanity. Thus, Amerikka will continue to be stuck on stupid.

    April 22, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • mike

      thanks for your post...I was severely depressed after reading the posts here. I thought we had made progress as a nation but the legacy of segregation and racism will take generations to undo.

      April 22, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • Susie

      Too bad you dont realize that no one here did this and the people responsibile are long dead.

      April 22, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Realist

      My only "privilege" is my ability to control myself in civilized society, along with my 140 IQ. I'm sory you don't share those privileges. Nobody said life was fair, though.

      April 22, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
  17. QuiGon Bong

    Here's the world's smallest violin for you chumley.

    April 22, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
  18. PeekandSeek

    XLNT article! Information is power. I will purchase your book.

    April 22, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
  19. Reagan80

    Whine, whine, whine ..................................................................................................................................................................

    April 22, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Mighty

      Truth hurts!

      April 22, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  20. jim

    It is important to publish these horrific photos. It is equally important to publish photos of white civil rights workers who went to Mississippi to help African-Americans. I think the lack of balance in reporting is what disturbs so many people.

    April 22, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • IceT

      I agree jim, reporting news in an unbiased fashion would be refreshing. But this isn't even news, it's history, and it's still not being covered in an unbiased manner.

      April 22, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
    • JT

      Why do you say "whites" in the same sentence as "African-Americans"? That's like saying blacks and European-Americans.

      April 22, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • jim

      @JT Conditioning?

      April 22, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Locomotive Breath

      Can we see the photos of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom after they were tortured to death or is that too recent for those who would harbor past grievances?

      April 22, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
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About this blog

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.