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. Debra Dorris

    Perfect Love Casts Out All Fear.

    We Americans need to learn how to love as Christ loved us. And remember Christ died for ALL men. What has happended in the past God will judge each man or woman. However, for the bible tels us that 2 Corinthians 5:10: "we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; tjat EVERYONE may be recompensed for the deeds done in his/her body, according that he/she has done, whether it be good or bad". As a christian woman I grieve for how divided we all have become, but the bible is being fulfilled before our very eyes. Matthew 24:12, Because sin will be rampant everywhere the LOVE of many shall grow cold". I for one am determine to keep loving and refuse to hate because the God I serve is LOVE. Forget trying to defend your self for Jesus said vengance is mine I will repay saith the LORD.

    I love you with the love of Christ. Serving Jesus makes the difference when you know he has your back.....

    May 13, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  2. shev34

    Race is only an issue when people make it an issue. I don't know if those men were hung for a crime or for the color of their skin, but many white people have been lynched too, often by other white people. 97% of black murder victims are killed by blacks. 60% of white murder victims are killed by whites. This means 40% are killed by non-whites. Are you telling me none of those 40% are race motivated? It seems to me that the people who go on about racism the most are usually the most racist. It was white Christians who abolished slavery worldwide – a wonderful example of humanity. The slave trade was run by unscrupulous people of all races, blacks, whites, Arabs, Latinos.

    May 13, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
    • glenda

      what are you talking about "hung for a crime" lets get one thing strait sir, back then and in that era a "crime" could have been looking at a white person the wrong way, ant that seemed to be enough many times to want to hang a black man or woman. So what you said made not sense, no offense!
      Now I dont believe that all white people should be punished for the actions of other unsavory whites, but lets call something as it truely is. And, yes I am aware that African chiefs were the main ones who sold their own brothers into slavery, but the main issue I have is- once Slaves got here they were treated more than unjustly. I am trying to understand many points of view and I hope that in turn you can do the same for my comment.

      May 13, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
    • Glenn

      One thing people need to understand is the environment in which people grow up in is in a constant of change. That children are raised by a previous generation who in turned were taught values not consistant with modern thinking.

      May 13, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
  3. Glenn

    When the South African president and the African Union supported Gadhafi during the Libyan crisis, I realized that for most people it's not about freedom and building a better life.
    It's about power, control and revenge for events long since over. It's about finding the justification to do as please as this is the true nature of humanity.
    The principles of human rights will never be embraced by a majority. Stereotyping along racial lines makes the world easier to comprehend and they all do it.

    May 12, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
  4. doug estes

    I was born, raised and curently live in small town Indiana. Believe me the racial hatred shown in the photo still exists here. Maybe not to that extent, but not far.

    May 12, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • common sense needed

      Don't forget the "victims" were guilty and their victim was just as dead.

      May 12, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  5. Klaark

    Look at the white's in that photo...GOP conservatives, each and everyone one. Raised their kids with the same beliefs. Vote. Them. Out!

    May 12, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • The Deist

      Wouldn't it shock you to know that most of those people in that photo were more than likely Democrats? Don't speculate like that. Research it before you spew it. You're just as bias as the people in that photo.

      May 12, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  6. mista411

    Somebody has to report on all of the issues. I wonder when FOX is going to report on racism in America?

    May 12, 2012 at 5:11 am |
    • yungCAUCASOID

      Fox doesn't have to report. CNN is becoming more racist, toward Blacks, so FOX-News racists can now just sit back & enjoy the show

      May 13, 2012 at 10:32 am |
  7. Malcolm Xcrement

    That picture brings back so many memories of my youth. I remember when my dad took me to my first cross burning.

    I remember asking him "Daddy, what's that smell?". His answer, "Freedom". We knew how to take care of uppity folks back then. Good times...

    May 11, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Whoosh

      You are a cowardly pig and ma is a ho.

      May 11, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
    • peace

      I am surprised you even know how to use a computer. I will pray for you and all of your offspring- may your family evolve.

      "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere"- MLK

      May 12, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • glenda

      i really hope you find something your missing in your life, whoever you are,because you sound so upset at the world, was if your upbringing, or did a past love leave you?
      Please tell me...

      May 13, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  8. &^%$#@!


    May 11, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • Malcolm Xcrement

      Watching this video is like watching a talking chimpanzee. Unga bunga bunga.

      If you ever wondered if education is wasted on these mud monkeys, well... There's your sign.

      May 11, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  9. &^%$#@!


    ff to 4:25
    Lets get a quality picture of those 2 little kids.

    May 11, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • mista411

      Your point is posting this is lost. Stop trolling.

      May 12, 2012 at 5:01 am |
  10. me

    I couldn't imagine living in those days. I'd be killed along with the black people for sticking by their sides trying to teach tolerance. I'm so embarrassed to be white sometimes. At least I'm not a Christian!

    May 11, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • Ben

      You are very brave and sensative

      May 11, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • mista411

      The heart of Christianity is doing to others what you have them do to you. By standing up for the rights of others, you are showing more practical Christianity than many so-called Christians who go to church on Saturday/Sunday but rail against the rights of the poor, oppressed and needy.

      May 12, 2012 at 4:49 am |
    • Divebomber

      Not a Christian and "ashamed to be white". How hip is that?

      May 13, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  11. Recovering Republican

    Ecxellent article, but it requires one correction. When the author wrote; "Between 1880 and 1940, Cone says, an estimated 5,000 black men and women were lynched.", the author should have written "Between 1880 and 1940, Cone says, an estimated 5,000 black men and women were lynched by Angry White CHRISTIANS."
    The offspring of these Angry White Christians are alive and well, using the Bible to dehumaniize Gays, in the same manner the used the same Bible to justify dehumanizing and lynching African Americans (known by a different and highly derogatory name back then).
    Bottom line is, Christians just need to stop HATING, and start LOVING, like we have been COMMANDED to do. God will judge come Judgement Day, but somehow, it seems like most Christians in America feels they have the right to Judge in place of God today. This is how the Devil hurts God's plans for us, by undoing His work inside His Church.
    The Devil is not on the other side of town, he sitting on your shoulder, talking to you, and you'll know it when you hear anything other than love and foregiveness.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • Ben

      If you are so concerned with the facts, you should also add that these were Angry, white Christian DEMOCRATS.

      May 11, 2012 at 4:57 pm |
    • mista411

      The blind have been leading the blind for a long, long time. People need to wake up and take off the rose-colored classes.

      May 12, 2012 at 4:24 am |
    • MrLowe

      Wow... I 100% agree with all you've said.

      May 12, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  12. Common Sense

    hahaha...this pict made me laugh

    May 11, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • njbeach

      What would really be funny is you hanging from that tree!

      May 11, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
  13. Cornelia

    I am so glad a respected theologian is confronting this issue. It must be confronted if American Christianity is to be validated. They did nothing for 200 years! And if you go to the slave castles in Africa it show just how horrible it was. Elmina in Ghana had a christian church on top of the horror of the slave holding rooms hwere hundreds of men and women wer stored with no toilets for months before being shipped.

    The failure of the Christian church on this issue is a serious stain.It is a stain on the history and integrity of white people in this country that needs to be dealt with. It is not really a black issue or just one that can be shuttled off. Bringing it up is not a sign of bitterness, but a sign that truth needs to be told. Its about time.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Recovering Republican

      Could not agree with you more, but the angry White Man is never going to face his sins.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • everettreb

      "Could not agree with you more, but the angry White Man is never going to face his sins."

      I wonder how many of those angry White men are still alive today?
      Or are you being as racist as Cone and blaming all white people?

      May 11, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Ben

      The majority of black african slaves were anamists (and some Christians) captured by black african muslims and sold to Europeans at the coasts. That is the fact that you should demand see the light of day. Europeans could not survive the trek and were to few to have gone out and captured people. For the most part, they bought them from black Africans who had no problem enslaving non Muslims.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Ben

      without the "angry white Republicans" from the north who formed the core of the abolishionist movement, slaves would never have been freed (along with the hundreds of thousands who dies in the civil war). A simple thank you will suffice.

      May 11, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • mista411

      Ditto Cornelia. Racism and its reverse is a big stain on Christianity. I know a lot of black men who won't go to a Christian church because they see Christianity as the religion of the oppressor. Wonder why that perception has persisted to this very day?

      May 12, 2012 at 5:04 am |
    • Divebomber

      I was just a fetus at the time but I accept full responsibility and I AM repentant.

      May 13, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  14. Lisa

    Gays say they have had the same civil rights problems as Blacks. Where are the pictures of thousands of Gays being hung in america for being gay. In america when did gays have to sit in the Back of the Bus? In amrican I have never been anywhere that had signs NO GAYS ALLOWED? Where gays slaves in America? Please someone show me how can gays say that their civil rights like blacks? No, blacks are just stupid for not saying anything.

    May 11, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • njbeach

      Really, Lisa? Maybe not to the extent of blacks, but don't you believe gays have been discriminated against? Haven't you read of gays being beaten and killed? I don't want to turn this into a gay topic, because while the article is about civil rights, the focus is on blacks. However, get a grip! Civil rights mean, ALL are created equal.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • The Deist

      Matthew Shepherd, Stuart Walker, Jadon Higganbothan, Daniel Zamudio, Lawrence King, David Kato, Teena Renae Brandon. I can go like this all day.

      May 12, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • house

      interesting. it is about class. gay history is more than stonewall, consider greco-roman era, a strong indication of gay aristocracy. ironically during this era is black antiquity. civil rights is an issue for those who do not have wealth black or gay or both.

      May 12, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
  15. silentseeker1

    They say that a picture is worth a thousand words......I see hate and evil all over that picture.

    May 11, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • tom118

      I hope everyone noticed where the lynching occurred. Maybe we in the deep south are not as intolerant as we are usually depicted.

      May 11, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • hehe

      damian 666

      May 12, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  16. drgene

    Reinhold Niebuhr certainly was not the "greatest American(Protestant) theologian"–that honor belongs to Paul Tillich. Niebuhr was more an Social Gospel Ethicist than Theologian.

    James Cone is Not an Academic Theologian. Nor is he a "prophet". He is a black man venting his anger, even hate, and dubbing it "Theology".

    Real Christian THEOLOGY, Catholic or Christian, is an Academic enterprise guided by a very strict systematic methodology on the use of Christian resources: biblical, historical,philosophical, confessional, and comparative religions–to give voice to the religious teachings and life of Jesus in a way that enlightens contemporary thought and life in all areas(religious and non-religious). Cone's Black Liberation Theology FAILS to meet these methodological demands. His teachings are more like Preaching than Academic Theology. But he preaches things that are directly Contrary to Jesus and the academic Christian theological tradition.

    So please stop calling Cone a Theologian. Merely talking about religion, or making socio-moral demands on others, does Not make you a theologian, or a "prophet". It makes you a Preacher.

    May 10, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  17. augustghost

    that photo is called " Indiana wind chime"

    May 10, 2012 at 6:57 am |
  18. hiphopprophets

    Reblogged this on Hip Hop Prophets and commented:
    James Cone, though not formally a rapper, certainly deserves attention as a hip hop prophet. This article is a decent introduction to his life and work...

    May 9, 2012 at 11:01 am |
    • mista411

      Amen hiphopprophets. You may be interested researching the connection between the call-and-response preaching style of the Black Church and hip-hop.

      May 12, 2012 at 4:54 am |
    • hiphopprophets

      mista411, Thanks for the comment and the research tip. I actually just did my masters thesis on religious and cultural aspects of hip hop and indeed found some very intriguing resources and insights regarding call and response and other poetic features of black preaching in connection to hip hop music on one hand and the historic West African tradition of prophet-poets called "griots." The amount of crossover between hip hop and AA religious traditions is often mind boggling!

      May 12, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  19. J Z

    I've always wondered 2 things
    1) What would have happened if tables were turned?
    2) When will we ever stop judging a person by the colour of their skin?

    May 9, 2012 at 12:48 am |
  20. god is a imaginary toy for mentally retarded pinheads!

    i am god!
    i am not black!
    blacks are put on this earth to be slaves to the white man!

    May 9, 2012 at 12:00 am |
    • J Z

      As I sit here and try to think of a response, I am lost because what do you say to someone who is close minded, ignorant, racist and a bigot? Nothing really, I just feel sorry for you.

      May 9, 2012 at 12:42 am |
    • indoubt

      J Z, there is nothing to say. This individual is obviously a troll and commenting just to provoke. Although, I will concede that the contradiction between the subject header and the text may be a type of irony, it still isn't funny.

      May 9, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • Terry

      Well, I am glad you cleared that up. Now that you have stroked the tissue paper across your brain, you can flush, pull-up your trousers, and walk proudly away from the toilet of bigotry.

      May 10, 2012 at 7:20 am |
    • Judi

      Do you really think Adam and Eve were white? Think about it - if they were made from the earth they had to be sorta brown. Boy, won't you be surprised when you stand before Almighty God and have to give account for yourself - you must have so much bitterness in your heart -- I'm sorry!!!!

      May 10, 2012 at 11:56 am |

      Poor thing, you and your kind are a pathetic bunch. It's such a burden to carry hate in your bitter heart. You will die twice bufore death.

      May 11, 2012 at 11:59 pm |
    • neverwhite

      what is this mentally retarded pinhead doing on this blog? stick your pinhead in the toilet where its belong.....

      May 12, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.