Photo: Tom Zubac
For more than 40 years, James H. Cone has been the world's leading African-American theologian. In 1969, he launched his career with the groundbreaking book Black Theology and Black Power, framing the distinctive theology of the black church and linking it to other Christian liberation theologies. His 13th book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, is his most personal. In it, he takes us to the root of a peculiarly American form of terror, lynching, and its implications for how Americans understand themselves and the world. Writer Susan Reed talks with James H. Cone, Charles Augustus Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
Q: You've written extensively about theology and the black church. What drew you to the subject of lynching?
A: Lynching was the most horrible, the most despicable, the most shameful, the most painful thing that the African-American community experienced in its history. It was what most people in the community in which I grew up, Bearden, Arkansas, did not want to talk about. The pain of remembering, the vision of black bodies dangling from southern trees surrounded by jeering white mobs is almost too excruciating to recall.
Q: Can you explain why people don't want to talk about it?
A: Lynching exposed black people's most painful vulnerability, at the deepest level. You're a man and you can't protect your wife; you're a mother and you can't protect your children. On some level, they knew that anybody in the white community could arbitrarily make them an object of that horrible, terrible death.
Q: How did it feel, researching and writing about lynching?
A: This is the most painful book I've ever written, and at the same time, it's the most liberating. It's particularly personal. It takes me back to my first memories of hearing the gospel, as well as back to my primal memories of terror and violence that were part of the reality of growing up in the Jim Crow South.
Q: Was lynching a peculiarly southern practice?
A: No, it wasn't. Lynching began during the Revolutionary War in America. Its name comes from Judge Charles Lynch, a Virginia planter who headed an irregular court that rounded up suspected Loyalists, supporters of the British, and conducted summary trials and sentences, including whipping and property seizure. Later, lynching started being used out on the western frontiers, where laws hadn't yet been extended. Communities used it as an extra-legal way to punish offences like wife beating and cattle rustling. These were things that threatened the core values of the community. Lynching could mean hanging, but it could also mean beating, dragging or banishment.
Q: When did lynching start in the South?
A: In 1887, after the Civil War, federal soldiers were withdrawn from the South. During Reconstruction, you had about 4 million free black people in the South. They were supposed to get the right to vote and the right to hire labor. But whites were not about to permit that. Lynching arose in order to control the black population, to exclude them from the political process, to keep them from voting and to force them to go back to work, on white people's terms. It was control through terror, and you strike terror not by killing a high number but by terrifying the population.
Q: What forms did lynching take?
A: In its heyday, the 1870s through the 1950s, up to 20,000 people would gather, coming from far and wide, to watch a lynching. In the 1890s, "lynching fever" gripped the South. Newspapers like The Atlanta Constitution would announce the place, date and time of expected hangings and burnings of black victims. They were called barbecues. It was a ritual celebration of white supremacy. Women and children were given the first opportunity to participate in the torture, to cut off a finger or a hand. Most black victims were burned. And they would burn them slowly, for a long time, then hang them from a tree. Southerners developed the art of torture, and they would get a certain kind of pleasure out of watching it. Sometimes, people were even lynched on church grounds. Lynchings were photographed, and postcards were made from the photograph, to be sent to friends.
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