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. Sam Yaza

    Christianity was the reason for African slavery, to bow to their god and turn on the mothers shows your weakness. their god is a tyrants and should be killed. better to die then to live as a slave to the will of YHWH all Christians Muslims and Jews are still slaves and wont be free until the break the chains of the tyrant GOD

    yours truly me ❤

    April 22, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      beware the crocodile tears of the jealousy, do not be fooled GOD is ruthless against those who do not submit to his will follow or die is his only agenda. return to the mothers they will protect you ....or become an Atheist or Buddhist and take no part in the war for the rightist will prevail against tyranny the mothers have returned love and freedom will be revived. no more fear and hate the tyrant will fall

      April 22, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  2. distractedwriter

    All those whites got away with it and they usually do. As a matter of fact, they are praised for it. Blacks usually don't, and certainly receive little or no praise.

    April 22, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  3. Timeless

    The photo looks right out of a Hieronymous Bosch painting. It's an illusion mankind has made that much progress.

    April 22, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • H0nky

      Comment under review.

      April 22, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
  4. Sara

    CNN is laying it on rather thick. Gotta love the timing, too.

    April 22, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  5. Animal Kingdom

    Ugh. I hate the variety of gawkers in the picture. Some look like everyday people. I'd be angry too if I lived through these
    events. A "not talked about" period makes me feel we are all living in a delusional world.

    April 22, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • H0nky

      Comment removed.

      April 22, 2012 at 4:50 pm |
  6. Francisco Garay

    The Jim Crow happened just a few decades ago, even with all the changes we have made as a society, those dark times are not that far in our past.

    April 22, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • H0nky

      Comment under review.

      April 22, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Sara

      Yeah, it was practically just a few hours ago.

      April 22, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • distractedwriter

      Actually something similar probably did happen just a few hours ago.

      April 22, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Sara

      Of course it did..

      April 22, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  7. Dan Schwertner

    Social justice is no where in Christ's teachings. He calls each of his followers individually to make a choice to act with meekness, gentleness and mercy.

    April 22, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • kevin


      April 22, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Plain Ol' Dreamer

      So goes the nucleus of a family's oralizing transitives! Give a honk to the moon-child's afterglow!

      April 22, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  8. Be free of anger

    Living in anger is a choice! Let it go, let God! Find everlasting peace in the Prince of Peace-Jesus Christ.

    April 22, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • burnz


      April 22, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • distractedwriter

      Tell that to Nugent.

      April 22, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
  9. Realist

    Thanks for proving my point by censoring posts, CNN.

    April 22, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
    • Helpful Hints


      See Helpful Hints on page #22

      April 22, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
  10. Bortain

    While we shouldn't forget such abominations of the past, we shouldn't dwell on them either. Most of the generation that did these evil things are dead and buried. Most of the younger generation is color blind in regards to race; in fact, you are seeing a lot of interracial marriage between all races, something that would have been a crime more than a generation ago.

    April 22, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  11. kevin

    the man sounds bitter but Jesus can set hime free!

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

      So can Ex-Lax !

      April 22, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • jim

      So can Ex-Lax!

      April 22, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
    • burnz

      .... this guy just needs prunes.

      April 22, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
  12. Mighty

    Most white men are buying guns and ammunition like crazy. I hope the minority in America are doing the same thing. They obviously know something that most minority does not. So be prepared minority. It either you gonna work together or die.

    April 22, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
    • jim

      I'm white and I know many white people. None of us has bought a gun in many years.

      April 22, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • jim

      I'm white and I know many white people. None of us has bought a gun in many years.

      April 22, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • Nate (Seattle, WA)

      Right. There's no problem with gun violence in the black community. It's just a white thing in America.

      Get a clue.

      April 22, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • forreal01

      @Mighty, you're writing about stuff you know nothing about. You either have a low IQ, or are on crack. Choose one!

      April 22, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  13. Tex Gritter

    I see fellow White people on here that are, like myself, getting rather ticked-off at "establishment" media and their race-bating ways. It takes a powerful lot to make us White boys and girls MAD, but I think that you liberals, with your constant array of race this-race that, are just about to get the job done.

    April 22, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • tormentor

      The day of judgement has come. The crimes of your ancestors are not forgotten!

      April 22, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
  14. Faith

    I am a victim of child molestation. As a Christian, I am taught that I am born again, a new person who can put the things of the past in the past and move forward to live a joyful and victorious life. I see that this country wants to move on. Those stuck in anger and vengeance and blame are not serving God but themselves.

    April 22, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
  15. just sayin

    Prayer changes things .

    April 22, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • just sayin

      Nice try, you forgot the God bless. God bless

      April 22, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  16. Stlchicago

    It's funny how a story line generates into a discussion and differences of opinions. Now, I don't know who's right or who's wrong in the extreme statements being posted. I just ask one thing. When you decide to have this race war, can you all please pick a specific date; and all of you meet at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. That way, we can just fill it with dirt and use one grave marker. Your meeting in the bottom of the Grand Canyon will also leave the cities and country sides for those of us who can go through life either minding our own business, or for those of us who can get a long with our fellow man or woman.

    April 22, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Kevin Malone

      I'm with you.

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

      Excellent idea. But if you could reason with them things would never have turned out this way in the first place.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
  17. doubleR

    Has CNN ever published an article in which a white person describes incidents of black racism?

    April 22, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
    • Yes

      good question.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
  18. ☹Mmmmm☹ 

    we are ALL children of god...apparently from the comments posted here especially by those who called themselves christians...it is all tongue in cheek upholding these truths: that we certainly are sisters and brothers in Christ...and truthfully sons and daughters of God...it is shameful that you have let the likes of hate mongers and those who are hate-filled who rejected God rejected Love and rejected God's Command's to Love thy Neughbor to VEX you in forgetting these
    truths...trully understand that these influences are demonic in origin and are to be rejected...wherever there is strife, argument, division of brother against brother know that these negative demonic influences and rejection of the One True God is there too...do not allow yourselves or your hearts be carried away by this evil...you are members and children of this family of God!

    April 22, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
    • burnz

      There is no god.

      April 22, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  19. Anytown USA

    The worst creation by technology is comment sections on web pages...

    April 22, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  20. jane

    When whites did this to blacks whites were considered to be 100% in the wrong. Yet blacks did the same to Jews (see Crown Heights) and Asians (see LA, NYC, and Philly) from the 90's to the present. A black reporter for CNN recently referred to the anti-Jewish Crown Heights pogrom as an "uprising". Think he'd refer to the scene pictured in this story as an "uprising"? Many black Americans- Jerimah Wright, Alice Walker- openly sympathize with Hamas who targets Jews worldwide. How is this any worse than supporting the KKK? Lynching blacks is wrong no matter what but targetting innocent Jews because of what another Jewish person does is A-ok with the black "civil rights" leaders. Disgusting

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


      April 22, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
    • Truth

      Please read up on your history! The Jeremiah Wright and Alice Walker are not racist. It’s amazing when people either won’t read the entire context of a sermon or their books. Jane please get informed. I can research all past US Presidents, Congressman, Senators that has passed racist’s legislation. Black people do not pass legislation. When have you seen black people lynched a white person? If we did, the numbers are nowhere near the numbers of your forefathers. Have you heard of the Third Reich? Probably so, where the Nazis killed the Jews during the Second World War. Every year that number seems to go up of the murders. Do I feel sorry for those who were killed? Yes. But when do people talk about the African Holocaust? You probably never heard of the Second Reich where the Nazis killed more Africans than Jews during the Second World War. The Second Reich was thirty to forty years before the Second World War. There has been more white on white crime than black on black. Do your research and look up the stats. The problem with most people they are misinformed or don't want to read a book to do some research!

      April 22, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • distractedwriter

      Jeremiah Wright and Alice Walker might be racists. It doesn't mean there aren't plenty more white racists.

      April 22, 2012 at 4:58 pm |

      Jane, you ignorant xlut! That makes no sense whatsoever. Get back to the barn.

      May 12, 2012 at 12:35 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.