The American theologian James Hall Cone (born 1938) was the author of the first major attempt to integrate Black Power philosophy with theology. He became the leading exponent of Black theology in the decades following the 1960s.
James Hall Cone was born in Fordyce, Arkansas, on August 5, 1938. After attending the local schools, he received a B.A. degree from Philander Smith College (Arkansas) in 1958, a B.D. degree from Garrett Theological Seminary (Wisconsin) in 1961, and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Northwestern University in 1963 and 1965, respectively. He taught religion at Philander Smith College, Adrian College (Michigan), and beginning in 1970 at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he was awarded the distinguished Charles A. Briggs Chair in systematic theology in 1977. He was visiting professor at several colleges and universities throughout the United States, including Drew University, Princeton Theological Seminary, University of Notre Dame, and Howard University. He lectured throughout the world and in virtually every state in the Union. Cone received the American Black Achievement Award, in the category of Religion in 1992.
James Cone became the preeminent Black theologian in the United States and the leading exponent for what is termed Black theology. The decade of the 1960s was a period of great social and racial turmoil in the United States. The civil rights movement of the early and mid 1960s with its model of passive resistance, led by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., had become more militant and separatist toward the end of that decade, with Malcolm X the most charismatic leader of this more revolutionary approach on the part of some Blacks. "Black power" became the clarion call for this more radical segment. The time was ripe for Black theologians to articulate a new vision of theology that would be geared to the Black Power movement.
The first major attempt to integrate Black Power with theology was James Cone's book Black Theology and Black Power (1969). Here Cone developed the thesis that Black Power is "Christ's central message to twentieth century America," that Black Power means "complete emancipation of Black people from white oppression by whatever means Black people deem necessary," and that "Whether whites want to hear it or not, Christ is Black, baby, with all the features which are so detestable to white society." Such rhetoric was not likely to win friends among white people, so consequently Cone became the target of a barrage of white criticism. What his critics failed to do was to read Cone's book from cover to cover, for in the final paragraph of his book he explains: "Being black in America has very little to do with skin color. To be black means that your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body are where the dispossessed are. … Being reconciled to God does not mean that one's skin is physically black. It essentially depends on the color of your heart, soul, and mind." For Cone, then, blackness is a symbol for the oppressed and whiteness is a symbol for the oppressor.
In his subsequent writings Cone consistently maintained the use of these symbols. In his second book, A Black Theology of Liberation (1970), Cone's rhetoric sounds strident if one fails to understand his use of the terms black and white. For example: "To be black is to be committed to destroying everything this country loves and adores." Or again, "Black theology will accept only a love of God which participates in the destruction of the white enemy." In looking back on these earlier books, Cone later admitted that he would no longer use such extreme language, but, nevertheless, his condemnation of racism and oppression was as strong as ever.
James Cone's influence continued to grow after the publication of his first book in 1969. He played a major role as catalyst in the emergence of liberation theologies throughout the Third World in their concern to free the oppressed from political, social, and economic misery. He was an effective spokesperson at the meetings of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, which beginning in 1976 brought together theologians from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. One of the most remarkable qualities about James Cone was his ability and willingness to grow and change with the times as he confronted new challenges. As early as 1977 he had come to see that Christian theology must develop a world-embracing vision that extends far beyond the immediate concerns of Black America and the particularities of the Christian faith. He wrote in Cross Currents in 1977: "I think that the time has come for black theologians and church people to move beyond a mere reaction to white racism in America and begin to extend our vision of a new socially constructed humanity in the whole inhabited world. … For humanity is whole, and cannot be isolated into racial and national groups." Cone readily admitted that in his earlier years as a theologian he failed to appreciate that he was guilty of male chauvinism and sexist language, especially with respect to Black women. In the introduction to the revised edition of Black Theology and Black Power he wondered aloud, "With black women playing such a dominant role in the African-American liberation struggle, past and present, how could I have been so blind?"
Twenty years after the first release of A Black Theology of Liberation, Cone's Martin & Malcolm & America compared the messages and missions of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. "Paradoxically, in some ways Malcolm has more to say to us today than Martin does. Malcolm had seen the nightmare early on and had learned to carve out hope. Martin began with the dream and faced the nightmare toward the end of his life when he began to see the massive poverty in the ghettos of Los Angeles and Chicago. He began to recognize the sickness of American society and widened his vision to include the black urban poor and the poor of the Third World."
Cone's willingness to learn as well as to teach was a mark of his true greatness. He ranks in the top echelon of theologians of all races and faiths today who are most admired and respected. In addition to his incisive writings he was a brilliant lecturer and a fiery preacher. And if the medium is the message, then the teachings of James Cone find their most eloquent testimony in the charisma and quality of his personal life and human relationships.
Further Reading on James Hall Cone
There is little published information on James Cone. One biographical work is Rufus Burrow James H. Cone and Black Liberation Theology (1994). Cone is listed in the Dictionary of American Scholars and the Encyclopedia of Black America. His best known book is Black Theology and Black Power (1969; rev. ed., 1989). Other important books include A Black Theology of Liberation (1970) (1990, 20th anniversary edition), The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation (1972), God of the Oppressed (1975), Black Theology: A Documentary History (1979), My Soul Looks Back (1982), For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church (1984, 1986), Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare (1991) and Black Theology: A Documentary History (1993).