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. Keith Marshall

    this why the world is the way it is . if we were to reverse the people in the photo what would that make you think about.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • TP

      Are you serious?

      April 23, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • babykitty


      April 23, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  2. TomCom

    People at one time sent postcards of lynchings to family and friends. The post office stopped mailing them in the 1940's

    April 23, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  3. burton ogilvie

    quite disturbing to see people at a lynching with smiles on their faces.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  4. John P. Tarver

    My Welsh ancestors were genocized by the Dutch in the 7th century in Scotland. Later, afer a Christian wedding uniting the tribes of Scotland the Celts murdered our drunk Nobles. In the eleventh century an army of archers was raised at Tarves and Tarver became the first anme among the Pixies; later known as Welsh archers. When Charles was beheaded we recieved from Parliment, in a deal with the round heads, land the width of North Carolina; with no western boundry.

    After the American civil war Benjamin Frankin Tarver would become Administrator of Reconstruction and free the slaves; after 1868. So many blacks took the name Tarver, as a rememberance between us, that Tarver is a black name today, but more interesting are those black we adopted in the manor of Jacob. These blacks enforced Reconstruction right along side the rest of the family, but where it took a white Tarver all week to hang a single violator, (13th Amendment) a black Tarver could hang two white masters each day. (12 a week) These were highly motivated civil servants.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  5. sillyMe

    THIS is the top, front and center news story on CNN???? Wow.

    Post the same photo over and over. You know, lynching was the way all kinds of people white or otherwise were handled back in the day. And yes, it was a huge celebration. You'd have to go to the continent of Africa to see this kind of vulgarity (and much worse) these days.

    Africa is the only place that always has been incredibly brutal and never, ever stopped. It continues to buy and sell slaves just as it always had before the first European showed up.

    If you want respect. If you want to be surrounded by a society that will fret over your sensibilities, your race, or other... you need to live in NORTH America or NORTH Europe.


    The blue eye'd devil is not your problem and hasn't been in a looooong time.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • DawnOfDawns

      You sound really sure about that...

      April 23, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
  6. dscon

    keep that racism+hate flowing cnn......

    April 23, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  7. yankeenot

    PRIMEWONK, where are you from?

    April 23, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • Primewonk

      Why should that matter? Are you seriously trying to justify racism, bigotry, and hatred based on where you live?

      April 23, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • yankeenot

      Hardly that, you need to learn how to read first! Your statement is completely in disagreement with what I said.Anyway, if you would crawl out of your two room apartment in Yonkers and get out more, you would see that it is not nearly as bad as what you Yankees think!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      April 23, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • Primewonk

      You wrote, " I also have lots and lots of black friends who are some of the best people in the world and think it is funny that CNN tries to stir up old crap like race relations. If CNN were to go out in the real world every once in a while, they would find that the South is the best place in the world to be right now and nobody really cares what color you are. Maybe just Yankees are hung up on that????........"

      I pointed out that racism is alive and well in the South. Overt racism. Ignorant racism. Again, almost half of all republicans in Mississippi (in a poll from last April) said that interracial marriage should be illegal. How many of those republicans do you think were white? How many do you think were good fundamentalist christians?

      Kind of hard to miss how these southern morons think when they put it right out in plain sight.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  8. barryjs07

    In the 1950's the FBI reported 8 total lynchings of which 6 were black. Does anyone honestly believe he was warned about a lynch mob coming to get him? Given what a hate-filled fraud this guy is one can understand his presence at the anti-Christian Union Theological Seminary.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  9. nathan

    Thanks for sharing the picture; wow!!

    April 23, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  10. TomCom

    America has always been extremely racist. Funny how the racist consider it an insult when they are called on it.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • lauradet

      America has not always been racist. Racism came along when the white man arrived and wanted to act superior instead of inclusive.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • TomCom

      White man named this country " america"

      April 23, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • babykitty


      LOL, I guess the natives sat around holding hands and singing in harmony before the whites came, huh?

      April 23, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  11. Rhino

    Perhaps Cone (and others who are outraged by the lynchings of the past) will practice what he preaches and speak out against the online/media lynching of Zimmerman. That would be a true test of his character and the consistency of his message.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • J

      Lynched. Lyncher.

      Killed. Killed.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
    • J


      Killed. Killer.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
  12. Dennis

    I am upset by all the lynchings in the past. I live in the present and there is more black on black killings and the black communities just put their heads in the sand and expect things to get better. Whites got angry with whites doing violence. The time is long past the black individuals have to look at the truth of their violence and stop it. You cannot point fingers at others if all you do is stay silent because you do not want to be a snitch There are such things as heroes. Let the heroes of the black communities step up. We whites will stand up in white communities and together we will end all violence.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • TP

      There is just as much White on White crime as there is Black on Black. The media just shows more of Blacks than Whites. The White community is better at keeping their violence "swept under the rug".

      April 23, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • DawnOfDawns

      That is probably 'cause white people spent centuries creating what have hereditaded into today's black communitie's problems, stop trying to cover the blame by playing hot potatoe.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:34 pm |
    • babykitty

      So are there any problems that the black community takes personal responsibility for, or is it always someone else's fault?

      April 23, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
  13. David in Auburn WA

    As usual, the self-righteousness is one way and hypocritical. Where was the outrage when Spike Lee tried to organize a lynching of George Zimmerman by tweeting what he thought was his home address? The angry mob formed ready to attack but all they got was a terrified elderly couple running for their lives since he tweeted the wrong address. Spike apologized to them for the inconvenience of being chased out of their home by an angry mob. But did that racist apologize for trying to have Zimmerman lynched to begin with? Noooo.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  14. humtake

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

    What about the teachings of Jesus to forgive? I guess Jesus's teachings that only deal with your point of view are accepted. You are doing the exact same thing that you are accusing white people of. I was born in the 70's. I did not live through any of this and I have not done anything like this because I have no reason at all to be racist. I believe Jesus forgives white people for their past transgressions as he does everyone on this planet. I also believe that anyone born in the 70's and after that is racist are only racist because of people like you (black and white) who continue to pound into our brains that racism is still alive. Sorry, but Jesus taught forgiveness as much as liberation. If you can't forgive as Jesus wants you to, you are not a man of true Christian faith.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • J


      We must not hold hate Muslims either or Democrats.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • petergoodwin1492

      Yes you are right about forgiveness. But compare it to this. Would it be easy for you to forgive the murderer of say your only child. have to do it , but extremely hard. give the professor time , he may come around.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • babykitty

      petergoodwin1492, no one is talking about holding the individuals guilty of lynching responsible. Is it fair to hold an entire people responsible for what some did in the past (and aren't even alive anymore)? Is that what you want someone to do to YOU? If someone who looked kind of like you sometime in the past murdered someone who kind of looked like me, can I hold YOU responsible? It is beyond ridiculous.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  15. lauradet

    I am so glad that you posted this photo, because it is the only thing I see every time I look upon the face of Caucasians the true and only Barbarians on the planet.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • paulm5545

      Somebody needs a hug.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
    • lauradet

      Could that be you?

      April 23, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • bozobucks

      Yep you racist POS. What I see is all the whites murdered and butchered by blacks every year, every day, every hour. Hell, blacks murder far more blacks then whites every did. But can't educated stupid can you.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
    • lauradet

      You cannot be serious bozo. From Tasmania, to Australia, to America to whites killing Jews, to Native Americans, to Africans, to indigenous people all around this planet, to even dropping the atom bomb etc...whites have committed murder and genocide you POS. Look at your history. Look at the photo on this article where you see whites smiling.

      Plus, according to the statistics blacks do not kill whites in the numbers that you claim. It's more of a reality that whites commit 67.5% of all hate crimes in America. POS get your fact straight.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • PaddingtonPoohBear

      The victims of the Rwandan genocide (among others) and victims of ONGOING slavery in other places in Africa would probably disagree with you...

      April 23, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • babykitty

      I guess you haven't picked up a history book or read the news. There are plenty of barbarians of all races. Yes, even yours.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:27 pm |
    • bozobucks

      That time of the month eh Laura! lol Yep, they are all white men disguised as black men in Africa killing all the other black men. If the world wasn't full of stupid racist people like you, I wouldn't look so good!!!!

      April 23, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
    • fleeMAN

      not all whites supported this; please don't judge an entire race on actions by certain individuals. Judge a man by his character and actions. There are bad people in ever race, creed and religion.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:30 pm |
  16. Pastor A

    Let's touch on a couple of things:
    1. If you have not read James Cone's work, it's probably a bad idea to call him a racist. At the height of the Civil Rights Era, he proclaimed that God is on the side of the downtrodden. It's a strong Biblical concept that should be paid attention to even today, as we think about those who are put upon and broken down by the systems we have. James Cone is not a racist, but places God in this tradition, which is both fair and accurate. It's sort of what Jesus did.
    2. If you don't believe that there is racism or any form of subjection in the world, then you are making a grave mistake about the state of the world. Recent events should illustrate this in the US, but the idea of separating people and denigrating groups is a long-held human belief.
    3. For all of my atheist brothers and sisters who will comment on this story, many Christians don't believe that non-Christians are going to hell, just our more vocal ones. I don't. It would be nice for us to have more of a conversation around this than just yelling at one another.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
    • humtake

      Yes, there is racism. But white people are not the only ones guilty of this and to treat them as if they are the only ones on this planet that are doing harm means you are the true racist.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
    • barryjs07

      Which recent events would you be referring to?

      April 23, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
    • Religion

      If you don't believe that non-Christians are going to Hell then you aren't religious. After all your nutbag Bible says so very clearly. You can't pick and choose what to believe – you need to believe it all like a zombie and have "faith".

      And if God is on the side of the downtrodden, why does he allow them to be downtrodden in the first place? After all he is all-knowing and all-powerful according to religious crazies.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • Pastor A

      Does the article say that white people are the only ones who are racist? I don't believe so. In the Civil Rights era, speaking about what is oppressive as white wouldn't be a stretch. For much of the history of the United States, white people have been the ones with power, and have subjugated others (notable groups: Native Americans, African Americans, etc.). This doesn't go away overnight, and will take years, if not decades to be worked through. And since there is still a disparity between people, it may be helpful if we at least just looked at it.
      Recent events would include the running over of a man in Jackson, MS by young people as they yelled racial epithets, the Trayvon Martin case, etc.
      And lastly, again I would stress some form of conversation about religion, among many things. My "nutbag" Bible actually refers commonly to people being in a place of pain and hurt if they reject Jesus, but this could be in reference to other things than eternal punishment. I would point you to Rob Bell's recent work Love Wins as a counterpoint to a more conservative Christian idea. As for oppression/evil and why it exists, that's a much bigger question and a much longer talk, but I believe that God didn't set everything into place so that we had to follow exactly what God wants. This would result in a "puppetmaster" God, and that wouldn't be a free and caring relationship. Rather God seems to try and lead and show us how to live and care for one another. I would also mention, the Bible has many different perspectives in it and shouldn't be read in the way that you would suggest. It's much more a collection of stories about what God has done in a particular place and time rather than a rulebook.
      Let's keep the talk coming!

      April 23, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  17. Jon Robinson

    The author presents distorted perspective of the current reality of social injustice by not showing Mr. Cole for who he really is. Mr. Cole does not view humanity as a whole; he looks at one segment of humanity, in one society and instead of trying to heal past wounds and promote healthy relationships, he encourages bitterness and anger. There are black on black lynchings in Haiti right now–not 50 or 100 years ago. Where is Mr. Cole’s anger regarding this? There are over 100,000 Chrisitans killed per year because their beliefs. 8,000 muslims were killed in one year in Srebrenica. 6 million jews killed during the holocaust. Where is Mr. Cole’s anger towards these other atrocities? He loses credibility with me when he focuses entirely on placing blame for the american lynching atrocities on the white churches. I believe Mr. Cole’s work, (and the authors who provide a forum for it) actually does a lot more harm than good. Education about how and why these atrocities occurred is the only way to minimize their occurrence in the future. This must be done in a healthy way that promotes dialogue and discussion and not by teaching people that it was the fault of another ‘race’. Shame on CNN.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  18. Jack

    LYNCH mob is after Zimmerman and the judge as reported on TWICHY com.

    CNN decides to put out this article.

    hmmmmmmm......... racial tension?

    April 23, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • lauradet

      You've got your historical facts all wrong Jack. There are no lynch mobs after Zimmerman, but people that saw an unjust act by the police once again. Just like the burnt body swinging from the noose. I bet his white person that did it got a chance to live a wonderful life and that's something that will not be tolerated any longer...hence the the outcry from the African American community regarding Zimmerman.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
    • Jack

      Many black people are alive because of the stand your ground law so they can protect themselves from these evil acts.
      Because of hatred the so called African American community is wanting to take the law in there own hands like the kkk did. You did not mention any thing about the evil acts that are accruing today.

      April 23, 2012 at 12:26 pm |
  19. Reality Check

    That was truely a very sad and unfair and remorseful period for America. There are no valid excuses.

    But lets look at America today and the black community attempting to lynch Zimmerman over the killing of Trayvon Martin.
    Its the same injustice with race roles reversed. The facts have been badly scewed by the press. The Martin family has tried to portray Trayon as a choir boy. He may have been at 12 but at 17 he had become just another thug wanna be.

    April 23, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
  20. carlyjanew6


    April 23, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
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