In his powerful book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, the late James H. Cone (1938–2018) examines the complex symbols that dominated African American life during the “lynching era” (1880–1940): the cross and the lynching tree. One offered despair, and the other, hope.
In writing this book, my primary concern is to give voice to black victims, to let them and their families and communities speak to us… I write it in order to start a conversation so we can explore the many ways to heal the deep wounds lynching has inflicted upon us.
As Cone points out, though American slavery was brutally severe and driven by hatred and greed, slaveholders had financial reasons to keep the people enslaved to them alive. That changed once African Americans received their freedom. About 5,000 people would be lynched in the United States, and neither the courts nor the public were on their side. Newspapers printed the details of planned lynchings for crowds of up to 20,000 men, women, and children. Photographers sold postcards with images of corpses. All-white juries would consistently acquit the killers. And despite the abundance of witnesses, photographs, and media foreknowledge of these horrific killings, police departments never seemed to have suspects or appropriate evidence for convictions. African Americans were truly suffering through hell on earth.
Spectacle lynchings attracted people from nearby cities and towns. They could not have happened without widespread knowledge and the explicit sanction of local and state authorities and with tacit approval from the federal government, members of the white media, churches, and universities.
Cone writes of two solaces for African American communities living under the cloud of white terror. The first is the juke joint, a Friday and Saturday night event for blues music, fun, and freedom of expression. There they could let loose and forget, briefly, about the dehumanization they suffered the rest of the week.
But it was risky for blacks to assert their humanity overtly during those times; it often had to be camouflaged in blues songs about sexuality at the juke joint.
The other solace for African Americans during those days was the black church.
If the blues offered an affirmation of humanity, religion offered a way for black people to find hope. Cone’s whole book expounds black theology in the love of God, the sacrifice of Jesus, and the suffering of African Americans.
A reflection on Reinhold Niebuhr
In his critique of Reformed theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s “realist” approach to the evils of Jim Crow, James Cone continues to trace the outlines of both Roman crucifixion and American lynching, noting their remarkable similarities:
The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans in Jerusalem and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States are so amazingly similar that one wonders what blocks the American Christian imagination from seeing the connection.
Despite Niebuhr’s sensitivity to racism, he suggested that justice should move slowly. In James Cone’s opinion, Niebuhr simply wanted to upset the social order as little as possible, even though he acknowledged the evils of racism. Niebuhr never even made the connection between the cross and the lynching tree, despite his work focusing mainly on the cross of Christ and being particularly attuned—for a white man during the lynching era—to the moral stain of racism.
Niebuhr discovered that talking about race was a divisive issue, even, or, shall we say, especially among white ministers in Mississippi, who were more concerned about the mixing of the races than about justice for whites and blacks.
Unlike Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who spent time in black communities despite only being in America for about a year, Niebuhr, in his sermon on Simon and the cross, missed an opportunity to move into the river of the black experience… The Gospel of Mark says thatthey compelledSimonto carry his cross(15:21), just as some African Americans were compelled to suffer lynching when another could not be found.
Though Cone remained frustrated with Niebuhr’s slow progress on racial justice, he acknowledged that progress. After Niebuhr read a copy of James Cone’s first book, Black Theology and Black Power, sent to him by the president of Union Theological Seminary, Niebuhr responded with mostly praise and meaningful perception.
I was surprised that Niebuhr had such a clear and sympathetic understanding of the meaning of black rage, something few whites ever grasp. It would seem that Reinhold Niebuhr, “America’s greatest theologian,” arrived at something close to racial justice understanding by the end of his life, although his response to Cone’s first book also included a critique of Cone’s
failure to appreciate the progress in integration.
What most whites call ‘integration’ (or in the language of today, diversity) is often merely ‘tokenism.’ There is very little justice in any educational institution where black presence is less than 20 percent of the faculty, students, and board members. There is no justice without power; and there is no power with one, two, or three tokens.
Bearing the cross
James Cone continues his story of the cross with two people who bore painful crosses redemptively: Mamie Till Bradley, the mother of 14-year old lynching victim Emmett Till; and pastor and civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On August 28, 1955, young Emmett Till was abducted, tortured, and murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, in the town of Money, Mississippi four days earlier. The two white men who murdered him, J.W. Milan and Roy Bryant, were acquitted by an all-white jury after an hour of deliberation.
Emmett was beaten beyond recognition, but his mother insisted that his casket remain open for a three-day viewing. As she looked on her only child, Mrs. Bradley prayed,
Lord you gave your son to remedy a condition, but who knows, but what the death of my only son might bring an end to lynching.
600,000 people saw Emmett Till’s mutilated body. His murder inspired African Americans across the country
to cast off centuries of paralyzing fear and demand change. This violent event deeply affected many people, including Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
King saw the cross as a source of strength and courage, the ultimate expression of God’s love for humanity. The more he suffered, the more he turned his eyes to Golgotha, the place of the skull, where Rome executed slaves, insurrectionists, and bandits.
Cone describes Dr. King’s crosses to bear—one involuntary, white supremacy; and the other accepted, black leadership. For 12 years, King was constantly aware of the risks to his life and family. His home was bombed twice, he received numerous death threats, he endured scorn for his nonviolent persistence, and he was ultimately killed. On the day before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a rather prophetic speech to sanitation workers on strike in Memphis:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 3, 1968)
While King never thought he had achieved the messianic standard of love found in Jesus’ cross, he did believe that his suffering and that of African Americans and their supporters would in some mysterious way redeem America from the sin of white supremacy, and thereby make this nation a just place for all.
The recrucified Christ
African American poets and other artists saw plainly what so many white churchgoers and theologians missed—that the clearest depiction of our crucified Lord in the United States was
the figure of an innocent black victim, dangling from a lynching tree. The poet Countee Cullen drew from this image often in his work.
Lynch him! Lynch him!O savage cry,
Why should you echo,Crucify!
The Black Christ, Countee Cullen, 1929
One of the most moving creative works about black suffering in the United States was a photography book published in 2000, Without Sanctuary. Editor James Allen collected dozens of images of lynchings—often photographs sold as souvenirs to lynching parties. The late Congressman John Lewis, and others, contributed essays to the book. Not long after Allen’s book was published, the United States Senate issued an apology to families of more than 5,000 lynching victims for failing to enact an anti-lynching law first proposed 105 years earlier. In the words of James H. Cone,
An apology, although important and welcomed by many blacks, is not justice.
The power of women
Women were the spine of our movement, said Andy Young, an early leader of the civil rights movement. Cone devotes a chapter of The Cross and the Lynching Tree to the impact on progress and freedom by African American women. Rosa Parks sat on a bus before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood before a nation. Billie Holiday’s performances of “Strange Fruit” (1939)
raised the political consciousness of musicians and their community with its blunt lyrics and astonishing dualism. Nellie Burroughs moved people out of passivity and into their own liberation. Ida B. Wells courageously rubbed America’s nose in the filth of lynching. These women, and many others, were the grassroots protesters and organizers that led the nation toward progress.
James Cone identifies with the words of associate professor of theology at Boston College Shawn Copeland:
If the makers of the spirituals gloried in singing of the cross of Jesus, it was not because they were masochistic and enjoyed suffering… The enslaved African sang because they saw the results of the cross—triumph over the principalities and powers of death, triumph over evil in this world. James Cone continues to emphasize the significance of the suffering of Christ to the marginalized and suffering African American people, especially to the women.
Although the civil rights movement was headed primarily by male leaders (such as Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Andy Young, and others), there never would have been a black freedom movement without the courageous work of women—such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Jo Anne Robinson, Ella Baker, Septima Clark, and many more.
James Cone concludes his book by remembering how he and his family anxiously awaited the return of his father each night, praying that he would walk through the door unharmed. Cone’s faith as a boy was ever-connected to the worry he experienced regularly—a worry that was directly linked to racial violence. He describes the feeling of relief when his father would finally arrive:
I would run and jump into his arms, happy as I could be. For that moment, at least, my faith was renewed.
He continues to tie faith to suffering by mentioning his wife dying at 36 of breast cancer.
Such personal suffering challenges faith, but social suffering, which comes from human hate, challenges it even more. White supremacy tears faith to pieces and turns the heart away from God.
Cone believed that the United States should remember its atrocities.
Just as Germans should never forget the Holocaust, Americans should never forget slavery, segregation, and the lynching tree. We should remember in order to give voices to the victims. As Cone points out, the civil rights movement in America started by remembering Emmett Till.
James H. Cone, the founder of black liberation theology, was a titan of American Christianity. His
struggle to make sense of being black and Christian in white America motivated all of his work as a theologian, from June 1968 until his death in April 2018—50 years. As he was beginning to write his first book, Black Theology and Black Power, only two months after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Cone received a revelation at Union A.M.E. in Little Rock, Arkansas. He describes it as a
transcendent voice that reminded him that
God’s liberation of the poor is the primary theme of Jesus’ gospel.
That liberation must continue today. In the final pages of The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone shares some outrageous, yet not surprising, statistics about the criminal justice system, where he says the
lynching of black America is taking place, even still:
- Nearly one-third of African American men between 18 and 28 years old are in prison, in jail, on parole, or awaiting a court date.
- Nearly one-half of the two million people in prison are African American.
- More African Americans are in prison than in college.
The death penalty is primarily reserved, though not exclusively, for people of color.
These harrowing statistics should remind us that the great work of so many people must continue—such great people as James H. Cone, Ida B. Wells, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, W.E.B. Du Bois, Mamie Till Bradley, Mary McLeod Bethune, M. Shawn Copeland, Andy Young, Countee Cullen, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday, James Allen, Jacquelyn Grant, JoAnne Terrell, Frederick Douglass, Nellie Burroughs, James Weldon Johnson, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many others.
The Cross and the Lynching Tree is a difficult book to read, but it’s one that I think is necessary. We cannot forget our ugly history, or that, as James Cone points out, white Christians lynched Jesus, and themselves too, by killing their own brothers and sisters. The lynching era remains America’s greatest sin, but in some ways it continues in the criminalization and dehumanization of African Americans by the U.S. legal system.
The lynching tree is a metaphor for white America’s crucifixion of black people. It is the window that best reveals the religious meaning of the cross in our land.
We’re created for community, and faith is best worked out among and for those around us. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote extensively about the cross of Christ and philosophized comfortably from his armchair while Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched in the streets of America and preached racial unity. We must reject any notion of embracing the spirituality of the cross while ignoring the reality of present suffering. We must continue the legacy of so many who have gone before us.
James Cone provides many more additional resources in the notes of his book, but these are notable to me. I hope you find them helpful.
- Black Theology & Black Power, by James H. Cone
- Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
- Why We Can’t Wait, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
- Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
- Countee Cullen: Collected Poems, by Major Jackson
- Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America, by James Allen
- Black Freedom Struggle in the United States: Challenges and Triumphs in the Pursuit of Equality