Black liberation theology and the Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone are inseparable. This profound concept, Cone said on many occasions, arose from the ferment of the civil and human rights struggle in the late ’60s, fueled by the ideas of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
“He was a theological giant,” said Dr. Cornel West, with whom he shared the classrooms at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan and remembering Cone, who joined the ancestors Saturday, April 28. He was 79.
Cone, according to a statement from the Seminary, died at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. No details were given for the cause of death.
In 1969, with the publication of “Black Theology & Black Power,” Cone made his entry into the debate about the role of the church in the rapidly evolving Black Power movement. In an afterword for “The Diary of Malcolm X,” he said it was Malcolm who “transformed Negroes into Black people, and thereby created the Black Arts movement, Black studies in colleges and universities, Black Power and Black Liberation Theology.”
Malcolm X might have been the inspiration for the idea, but it was Dr. Cone who codified Black Liberation Theology, grounding it in a belief of a revolutionary Jesus, a Black messiah who embodied the political and cultural outlook of King and Malcolm X. In his book “Martin & Malcolm & America—A Dream or a Nightmare?” he examined the lives of these two iconic thinkers and postulated that the trajectories of their views were headed toward a convergence.
Born Aug. 5, 1938, in Fordyce, Ark., Cone, during an interview with Historymakers, discussed his early years: “With his parents’ teachings on faith and his strong understanding of the value of an education, Cone began his formal training with a diploma from Ouachita County Training High School in 1954. That same year, he received his call to the ministry and became a pastor at age 16. After receiving his BA degree from Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. in 1958, he attended Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., where he received his BD degree in 1961. Continuing his studies, Cone received both his MA degree in 1963 and his Ph.D. in systematic theology in 1965 from Northwestern University.”
In 1966, at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, he began his long illustrious teaching career, including significant stints at Adrian College in Michigan and at the Union Theological Seminary. At this school he established a national reputation that made him a guest speaker at many religious, intellectual and political conferences.
He authored, edited and co-edited numerous books, and his work with Gayraud S. Wilmore, especially their “Black Theology—A Documentary History, 1966-1979,” in the estimation of Howard Dodson “pinpoint the critical questions facing Black people and the Black church as we approach the 21st century.”
Another major moment in Cone’s life and development occurred during the rebellion in Detroit in 1967. Hearing the “voices of Black blood crying out to God and to humanity,” he said in an interview last year was a turning point in his life.
Earlier this year, Cone was the recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for his most recent book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” which draws a parallel between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of Black people. And later this year, his memoir will be published.
Among his survivors are his sons, Michael and Charles; his daughters, Robynn and Krystal; a brother, Charles; and two grandchildren.
The funeral service will be held Monday, May 7, at 11 a.m. at the Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Dr., New York, N.Y. Services will be live streamed on the Union Theological Seminary website.