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Between 1880 and 1940, nearly 5,000 black men and women were lynched in the United States. During that time, many African-American Christians turned to their religion. They saw a link between the crucifixion cross and the lynching tree, and that provided hope to many that, like Jesus, their suffering was not in vain.

Theologian James H. Cone explores the concept in “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” which was published in 2011. He’s this year’s winner of the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in Religion, presented jointly by the University of Louisville and the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

I spoke to him about his research. Listen in the player above.

On the process of writing the book:

“It was the most painful book I’ve ever written so I took quite some time thinking about it, and trying to get the right words to say what I wanted to say so people would understand why I wrote this book.”

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“The Cross and the Lynching Tree”

On any worries about the book being controversial:

“You know, I was born in the South, in Arkansas. I knew something about lynching, because my parents talked about it a lot. And I know something about the South. I kind of wondered whether southern white Christians would understand what I’m trying to say and why I’m trying to say it.”

On his Grawemeyer win:

“Receiving the Grawemeyer award was quite a surprise because it’s out of the context of the South. That they could understand what I was saying and why I was saying it, and place value on it, meant a great deal to me.

“No other award have been as meaningful. I wanted to chose the right words so I could speak the truth but not show vengeance or hate that would turn people off.”

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.