James Hal Cone (1938–2018)
James Hal Cone became known as the father of black liberation theology, which he described as a “theological identity that was accountable to the life, history, and culture of African-American people.” Cone often discussed the impact that growing up in Bearden (Ouachita County) and attending the Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church had on his life. Both powerfully influenced his thinking: Bearden for the pain and suffering inflicted on African Americans, and Macedonia as a place where he encountered Jesus. Cone published numerous books on black liberation theology and lectured at more than 1,000 universities and community organizations throughout the United States, Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
Born to Charles and Lucy Cone in Fordyce (Dallas County) on August 5, 1938, James Cone was raised in the “colored” section of Bearden. After graduating from Ouachita County Training School, he attended Shorter College in North Little Rock (Pulaski County) and received a BA from Philander Smith College in Little Rock (Pulaski County) in 1958. He earned his Master of Divinity from Garrett Theological Seminary in 1961, prior to earning a master’s degree (1963) and doctorate (1965) from Northwestern University.
A young man during the 1957 desegregation crisis at Central High School, Cone later became actively involved in the black freedom movement that became widespread throughout America. As Cone became increasingly frustrated with racism and injustice, he sought a means to create a Christian theology out of the black experience of slavery, segregation, and the struggle for a just society. He began writing from a theological perspective and formulated black liberation theology as the necessary tool to confront the suffering of poor African Americans; major publications of his early career include Black Theology and Black Power (1969, reprinted multiple times) and God of the Oppressed (1975). His theological perspectives were influenced by Martin Luther King Jr., whom he referred to as the “most important Christian theologian,” and Malcolm X, on whom he bestowed the title of “America’s most trenchant race critic.” In 2011, Cone published The Cross and the Lynching Tree, in which he demonstrated black suffering through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus in an effort to integrate black and Christian identities.
An ordained minister, Cone served as the Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City since 1987. He was an active member of numerous professional societies; published twelve books and written more than 150 articles; and earned countless awards and recognitions, including the Paul Robeson Award from Mother AME Zion Church, the American Black Achievement Award, the Theological Scholarship and Research Award from the Association of Theological Schools, the Fund for Theological Education Award for contributions to theological education and scholarship, induction into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, and the Julius C. Hope Champion of Social Justice Award. He was married twice and had four children.
Cone died on April 28, 2018. Later that year, his memoir, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, was published by Orbis Books.
For additional information:
Blake, John. “America’s ‘Angriest’ Theologian Faces Lynching Tree.” CNN Belief Blog. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/04/21/americas-angriest-theologian-faces-lynching-tree/?hpt=hp_c1 (accessed January 24, 2022).
Cone, James H. Black Theology and Black Power. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997.
———. For My People: Black Theology and the Black Church. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1984.
———. God of the Oppressed. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1975.
———. My Soul Looks Back. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1982.
———. Risk of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology, 1968–1998. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.
———. Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018.
“In Memoriam: James H. Cone.” Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. https://utsnyc.edu/james-cone/ (accessed January 24, 2022).
Johnson, Andre E. “James Hal Cone.” In Great Lives for History: African Americans, edited by Carl L. Bankston III. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 2011.
Johnson, J. Chester. “A Writer Reflects on Four Enlightening and Challenging Lunches with the Father of Black Liberation Theology.” History News Network, August 7, 2022. http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183620 (accessed August 8, 2022).
———. “The Prophetic Persona of James Cone and the Rhetorical Theology of Black Theology.” Black Theology: An International Journal 8.3 (2010): 266–284.
Arkansas State University
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