Martin Luther King Jr.: Bearing the Cross and Staring Down the Lynching Tree

It is one thing to teach theology (like Niebuhr, Barth, Tillich, and most theologians) in the safe environs of a classroom and quite another to live one’s theology in a situation that entails the risk of one’s life. King agreed fully with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian pastor hanged in 1945 by the Nazis for resisting Hitler: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Like Reinhold Niebuhr, whom he studied in graduate school, King believed that the cross was the defining heart of the Christian faith. Unlike Niebuhr, his understanding of the cross was inflected by his awareness of the lynching tree, and this was a significant difference. While the cross symbolized God’s supreme love for human life, the lynching tree was the most terrifying symbol of hate in America. King held these symbols together in a Hegelian dialectic, a contradiction of thesis and antithesis, yielding to a creative synthesis.

In considering the subject of God and the problem of race in America, King reflected that God’s love created blacks and whites and other human beings for each other in community (thesis). White supremacy was the sin that separated them in America and in much of the world (antithesis). God reconciled humanity through Jesus’ cross, and thereby white supremacy could never have “the final and ultimate word” on human relationships (synthesis). God’s reconciling love in the cross empowered human beings to love one another—bearing witness with “our whole being in the struggle against evil, whatever the cost.” Thus, blacks and whites together were free to create the American Dream in society and the Beloved Community in our religious life.

Like Reinhold Niebuhr, King believed that love in society is named justice. King came to see early that “the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of non-violence was one of the most potent weapons available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom.” Hate and white supremacy lead to violence and alienation, while love and the cross lead to nonviolence and reconciliation.

There was, however, an important difference between Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King Jr. that partly accounts for why King became a martyr in the civil rights movement while Niebuhr remained safely confined in his office at Union Seminary teaching Christian social ethics, never risking his life in the fight for justice. Unlike King, Niebuhr viewed agape love, as revealed in Jesus’ cross, as an unrealizable goal in history—a state of perfection which no individual or group in society could ever fully hope to achieve. For Niebuhr, Jesus’ cross was an absolute transcendent standard that stands in judgment over any human achievement. The most we can realize is “proximate justice,” which Niebuhr defined as a balance of power between powerful collectives. But what about groups without power? Niebuhr did not have much to say to African Americans, a 10-percent minority, except to recommend nonviolence, which he believed might advance the cause of civil rights, while never winning full justice. Niebuhr’s moderate view was not one to empower a powerless group to risk their lives for freedom. That might have been why he did not talk to militant black groups or black nationalists in Harlem. He had very little to say to them.

If blacks had followed Niebuhr’s theology of proximate justice, there would have been no militant civil rights movement because, practically speaking, blacks had no prospect of success against the power of white supremacy. Niebuhr believed that laws that violated the mores and customs of the southern white majority would not be obeyed; if such laws were enforced, the result would be anarchy. On that basis, he was practical and cautious in his support of the integration of schools in the South and praised the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) decision, which made segregation legal, and perhaps that is why he was silent about the Till lynching at a time when his powerful theological voice was desperately needed.

Although Martin Luther King Jr. was strongly influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr, he had a different take on love and justice because he spoke to and for powerless people whose faith, focused on the cross of Jesus, mysteriously empowered them to fight against impossible odds. In contrast to Niebuhr, King never spoke about proximate justice or about what was practically possible to achieve. That would have killed the revolutionary spirit in the African American community. Instead, King focused on and often achieved what Niebuhr said was impossible. “What do you want?” King would call out before a demonstration. “Freedom!” the demonstrators would shout back, ready to face angry white mobs and policemen. “When do you want it?” King would ask, his voice reaching a crescendo. “Now!” was the resounding response, as the protestors would begin walking and singing together, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”

“Not tomorrow, not next week, but now!” was the persistent cry for freedom among people who had never known it. “I am tired of fighting for something that should have been mine at birth,” King often said. That kind of language created a revolutionary spirit that sent people into the streets, prepared to shoulder the cross, ready to meet whatever fate at the hands of mobs or the police. There was no talk about proximate justice—that little bit of justice that whites dole out to blacks when they get ready. God’s justice called for black people to bear witness to freedom now, even unto death. That was why Fred Shuttlesworth, the movement’s most courageous freedom fighter, said, “You have to be prepared to die before you can begin to live.” This justice language was defined by a love of freedom derived directly from Jesus’ cross, and it led more than forty martyrs to their deaths in the civil rights movement.

Martin King lived the meaning of the cross and thereby gave an even more profound interpretation of it with his life. Reinhold Niebuhr analyzed the cross in his theology, drawing upon the Son of Man in Ezekiel and the Suffering Servant in Isaiah; and he did so more clearly and persuasively than any white American theologian in the twentieth century. But since he did not live the meaning of the cross the way he interpreted it, Niebuhr did not see the real cross bearers in his American context. The crucified people in America were black—the enslaved, segregated, and lynched black victims. That was the truth that King saw and accepted early in his ministry, and why he was prepared to give his life as he bore witness to it in the civil rights movement.

Martin Luther King Jr. initially encountered the meaning of the cross at home and at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where his father was the pastor. At Ebenezer, young Martin heard a lot of singing and preaching about the cross. Black Christians sang, “Surely He Died on Calvary,” as if they were actually there. They felt something redemptive about Jesus’ cross—transforming a “cruel tree” into a. “Wondrous Cross.” Blacks pleaded, “Jesus Keep Me near the Cross,” because “Calvary,” in a mysterious way they could not explain, was their redemption from the terror of the lynching tree.

Though wonderful and beautiful, Jesus’ cross was also painful and tragic. Songs and sermons about the “blood” were stark reminders of the agony of Jesus’ crucifixion—the symbol of the physical and mental suffering he endured as “dey whupped him up de hill” and “crowned him wid a thorny crown.” Blacks told the story of Jesus’ Passion, as if they were at Golgotha suffering with him. “Were you there when dey crucified my Lord?” “Dey nailed him to de cross”; “dey pierced him in de side”; and “de blood came twinklin’ down.”

Jesus, my darling Jesus,
Groaning as the blood came spurting from his wound.
Oh, look how they done my Jesus.

But through it all, “he never said a mumbalin’ word”; “he just hung down his head and cried,” and “then he . . . died.”

O see my Jesus hangin’ high!
He look so pale an’ bleed so free:
O don’t you think it was a shame,
He hung three hours in dreadful pain?

Instead of attempting to explain the saving power of the cross rationally, black Christians recognized it as a mystery, beyond human understanding or control. In remembrance of Jesus’ last week, leading to his death, blacks at Ebenezer and other black churches, celebrating the sacrament of “Holy Communion,” raised their voices to acknowledge “a fountain filled with blood,” “drawn from Immanuel’s veins”; “blood,” they believed, “will never lose its power,” because “there is power in the blood,” and “nothing but the blood.”

Since most ministers had little or no formal training in academic theology, they spoke from their hearts, appealing to their life experience, biblical stories, and the Spirit of God that empowered them to struggle for dignity and freedom. They proclaimed what they felt in song and sermon and let the truth of their proclamation bear witness to God’s redemptive presence in their resistance to oppression. Their sense of redemption through Jesus’ cross was not a propositional belief or a doctrine derived from the study of theology. Redemption was an amazing experience of salvation, an eschatological promise of freedom that gave transcendent meaning to black lives that no lynching tree could take from them.

Ain’t you glad, ain’t you glad,
that the blood done sign your name?

When blacks sang about the “blood,” they were wrestling not only with the blood of the crucified carpenter from Nazareth but also with the blood of raped and castrated black bodies in America—innocent, often nameless, burning and hanging bodies, images of hurt so deep that only God’s “amazing grace” could offer consolation.

As a child, Martin King heard his father and other ministers preach about Jesus’ death and his power to save not only from personal sins but also from “the hatred, the violence, the vitriolic and vituperative words of the mobs, . . . aided and abetted by the law and law enforcement officers.” Ministers often preached sermons about Jesus’ crucifixion, as if they were telling the story of black people’s tragedy and triumph in America. The symbol of the cross spoke to the lives of blacks because the likeness between the cross and the lynching tree created an eerie feeling of mystery and the supernatural. Like Jesus, blacks knew torture and abandonment, with no community or government capable or willing to protect them from crazed mobs. “Oh, way down yonder by myself,” in Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas, “and I couldn’t hear nobody pray. In the valley, on my knees, with my burden,” “O my Lord, O my Lord, what shall I do?”

In their spiritual wrestling, black Christians experienced the weakness and power of God’s love revealed in the cross—mysteriously saving them from loneliness and abandonment and “the unspeakable violence . . . by blood thirsty mobs.” Black ministers preached about Jesus’ death more than any other theme because they saw in Jesus’ suffering and persecution a parallel to their own encounter with slavery, segregation, and the lynching tree.

The assertion that Jesus’ cross is the answer to the lynching tree, as young Martin heard preachers proclaim at Ebenezer and later appropriated for himself, is a stunning claim. How could Jesus’ death in Jerusalem save blacks from mob violence nearly two thousand years later in America? What did salvation mean for African Americans who had to “walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” or those forced to swing from a lynching tree? As a young Christian thinking about the ministry as a vocation, Martin King had to wrestle with the great contradictions that mob violence posed for black life and Christian identity.

Born in 1929 on the eve of the Great Depression, thirty years after the lynching of Sam Hose, and twenty-three years after the infamous Atlanta riot, Martin Luther King Jr. was never far from black suffering. Ministry appealed to him because he “felt the inescapable urge to serve society,” to do something about black suffering. It was, he said, in his application to Crozer Seminary, “a sense of responsibility which I could not escape.” King’s own experiences of segregation and injustice as a child and a teenager disgusted him. Forced to sit behind a curtain on a train, he said, “I felt as though that curtain had dropped on my personhood.” In those formative years the Klan was as active as ever, striking fear with their hooded night marches and burning crosses, a powerful reminder that not all crosses were liberating and loving, even when Jesus’ name was invoked. White ministers sometimes served as mob leaders, blessing lynchings, or citing the stories of Ham and Cain to justify white supremacy as a divine right.

Martin King first encountered lynching in conversations with his parents. His father, “Daddy King,” would later, in his autobiography, describe his first childhood glimpse of Judge Lynch, an event so terrifying that “I thought I was going to pass out.” A group of disgruntled white men, complaining about “niggers” taking their jobs, had decided to take their frustrations out on a black man who worked with them at the mill. Hearing their conversation, as he walked near them from work, the black man knew his life was in grave danger, but it was too late to retreat or to pass unnoticed. He just smiled as he walked briskly, hoping to make it home without incident. But this was not to be.

“What the hell are you laughin’ at, nigger?” one man shouted. “I ain’ laughin’, suh, honest I ain’t. . . . Jus’ on ma way home is all. . . .” He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. There was no exit. He was a scapegoat like Jesus. “Nigger come struttin’ down the road like he thinks he’s up North someplace. Pocket full of money. Laughin’ at white folks.” It was payday and they tried to take his money. “This money fo’ my chil’ren now,” the black man screamed, fighting back. “I cain’ let you have that.” They proceeded to kick and beat him severely—“blood pouring out of the man’s mouth,” as he cried out in painful agony. “They pulled him right past me,” Daddy King remembered; “it was as if I hadn’t even been there watching.” Then “one of them took off his belt and wrapped it around the Negro’s neck. They lifted him up and tied the end of the belt to this tree and let him go . . . his feet about five or six inches off the ground.” Like Jesus, hanging on a cross, this nameless black victim, hanging on a Georgia tree, was left to die a shameful death—like so many other innocent blacks, completely forgotten in a nation that did not value his life.

Merely a child at the time, Daddy King was shocked into silence, as he helplessly watched a lynching take place only a few feet away. “All I could do was to run on home, keep silent, never mentioning what I’d seen to anyone, until many, many years later, when I understood it better.”

Openly to fight white supremacy in the deep South during the 1950s and ’60s was unthinkably perilous. Even at a distance of more than fifty years, we can still sense the fear. When King agreed to act as the most visible leader in the civil rights movement, he recognized what was at stake. In taking up the cross of black leadership, he was nearly overwhelmed with fear. This fear reached a climax on a particular night, January 27, 1956, in the early weeks of the Montgomery bus boycott, when he received a midnight telephone call threatening to blow up his house if he did not leave Montgomery in three days. Later he told how that call created a “spiritual midnight,” as he thought about what could happen to him, his wife, and newly born baby girl.

Later recalling this incident, King told how fear drove him from bed to the kitchen where he prayed, “out loud,” pleading, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. . . . But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now, I’m faulting, I’m losing my courage.” Yet then, like Mrs. Bradley, King said he heard a voice: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even to the end of the world.”

Interestingly, that message echoed the words of an elderly, unlettered woman, who was “affectionately called Mother Pollard.” At an earlier mass meeting where King was urging the people to continue the boycott of the buses, she had perceived his doubt and fear. He did not speak with the conviction she was accustomed to hearing. When she confronted him, King denied anything was wrong. “You can’t fool me,” she told him. “I know something is wrong. Is it that we ain’t doing things to please you? Or is it that the white folks is bothering you?” Before he could reply, she said, “I don told you we is with you all the way. . . . But even if we ain’t with you, God’s gonna take care of you.

“God’s gonna take care of you”—it was an eschatological promise Martin Luther King Jr. never forgot. It was the same promise he would later hear in his kitchen—words also found in a popular hymn, “Never Alone,” which he cited often to renew his spirit when threats against his life overcame him.

Three nights after that threatening call, while he was at a boycott meeting, King’s house was bombed. Fortunately, his wife and daughter and a family friend escaped harm, having moved to the back of the house when they heard something land on the porch. When told at the meeting that his house had been bombed, King calmly asked about the safety of his family and then went home to comfort them.

“Strangely enough,” he said later, “I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.” When an angry crowd of blacks gathered with guns ready for revenge, King raised his hand and calmed them, saying, “We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with non-violence. . . . We must love our white brothers no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them.”

As King saw it, the most powerful religious authority for black Christians was Jesus Christ, and Jesus’ teachings on love and nonviolence became his primary focus: “Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: ‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.’ This is what we must live by.”

Loving whites who hated and killed them was not easy for African Americans. Only God could empower black Christians to love hateful whites, and even God could not guarantee that they would return love for hate, nonviolence for violence. But King believed that God was the only hope for a minority to achieve justice. “Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop, because God is with the movement.

A few weeks later, when a reporter asked him whether he was afraid, King replied:

No, I’m not. My attitude is that this is a great cause. This is a great issue we are confronted with and the consequences for my personal life are not particularly important. It is the triumph of the cause that I am concerned about, and I have always felt that ultimately along the way of life an individual must stand up and be counted and be willing to face the consequences, whatever they are. If he is filled with fear, he cannot do it. And my great prayer is always that God will save me from the paralysis of crippling fear, because I think when a person lives with the fear of the consequences for his personal life, he can never do anything in terms of lifting the whole of humanity and solving many of the social problems that we confront.

On the very anniversary of his vision in the kitchen—having learned about the discovery of twelve sticks of unexploded dynamite on his porch the previous night—King recalled the experience in a sermon. Although he and his family were again unhurt (having spent the night at a friend’s house), he acknowledged that the attempted murder had disturbed him profoundly. Recalling his kitchen experience, he told the congregation how God had removed his fear. “I realized that there were moments when I wanted to give up and I was afraid but You gave me a vision in the kitchen of my house and I am grateful for it.” He told his listeners that “I went to bed many nights scared to death.” But then,

early on a sleepless morning in January, 1956, rationality left me. . . . Almost out of nowhere I heard a voice that morning saying to me, “Preach the gospel, stand up for truth, stand up for righteousness. Since that morning I can stand up without fear.

So I’m not afraid of anybody this morning. Tell Montgomery they can keep shooting and I’m going to stand up to them; tell Montgomery they can keep bombing and I’m going to stand up to them. If I had to die tomorrow morning I will die happy because I’ve been to the mountain top and I’ve seen the promised land and it’s going to be here in Montgomery.

When Martin King was at his darkest moment and the “midnight of death” was at his door, he turned to the God of the cross. But the threatening call on January 27, 1956, was only the first of many “midnights” King would face. As he would later note, we do not know what we truly believe or what our theology is worth until “our highest hopes are turned into shambles of despair” or “we are victims of some tragic injustice and some terrible exploitation.” What sustained him was the sense of God’s love, which gave him “the interior resources to bear the burdens and tribulations of life,” “come what may.”

King struggled with the meaning of the cross for his life at various crisis moments in the civil rights movement. Shortly after he resigned as pastor of Dexter in Montgomery and moved to Atlanta to become co-pastor of Ebenezer with his father and full-time leader of a national civil rights movement as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King was arrested for a minor traffic violation and sentenced, like a “hardened criminal,” with handcuffs on his wrists and chains on his legs, to four months in the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville (230 miles from Atlanta). With his wife eight months pregnant, King began to realize existentially what bearing the cross of white supremacy would mean as he also voluntarily bore the cross of black leadership. Two crosses—white supremacy and black leadership, one imposed and the other freely assumed—weighed heavy on his young life. “I know the whole experience is very difficult for you to adjust to,” he wrote to Coretta, “especially in your condition of pregnancy, but as I said to you yesterday this is the cross that we must bear for the freedom of our people. . . . I have the faith to believe that this suffering that is now coming to our family will in some little way serve to make Atlanta a better city, Georgia a better State, and America a better country. Just how I do not yet know, but I have faith to believe it will. . . . Our suffering is not in vain.”

Yet King had no “martyr’s complex.” “I’m tired of the threat of death,” he proclaimed in a stressful moment during the later protests in Chicago. “I want to live. I don’t want to be a martyr. And there are moments when I doubt if I am going to make it through. . . . But the important thing is not how tired I am; the important thing is to get rid of [injustice].” King just wanted to follow Jesus, even if it led to his own death. He really believed what Jesus said to his disciples: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24).

Bearing the cross was a frequent theme in King’s sermons. Preaching at Dexter on his return from a visit to Palestine in 1959, Martin King, following the black religious tradition on Simon of Cyrene, recalls that in the story of the crucifixion, “when Jesus fell and stumbled under that cross, it was a black man that picked it. up for him and said, ‘I will help you,’ and took it on up to Calvary.” When we realize that blacks “have been dominated politically, exploited economically, trampled over, and humiliated,” King told the Dexter congregation, “I think one day God will remember that it was a black man that helped His son in the darkest and most desperate moment of his life. . . . It was a black man who picked up that cross for him and who took that cross on up to Calvary. God will remember this. And in all our struggles for peace and security, freedom and human dignity, one day God will remember that it was a black man who aided his only-begotten son in the darkest hour of his life.” Like other black ministers before him, King connected the story of the black struggle for dignity with the biblical story of Calvary. In merging the two stories, he was enabled to face his own coming death.

Editorial Note: This essay is an excerpt from The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books 2013). All rights reserved. To order a copy at 30% discount, please use this link and enter promotion code “CLJ” in the shopping cart. Code expires 12/31/2023.

Featured Image: Martin Luther King Jr., date unknown, PD-US-Gov plus Reinhold Niebuhr in 1950 image taken from Flickr, PD.


James H. Cone

James H. Cone (1938–2018) was the Bill and Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary. His books include A Black Theology of Liberation, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare, and The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

Read more by James H. Cone