JAMES CONE: Courageous Leadership in Times of Crisis


JAMES CONE: Courageous Leadership in Times of Crisis

Lecture given by Dr. Marvin McMickle at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School during a week-long symposium on the impact of James Cone and Black Theology.

It is safe to say that James Cone encountered and responded to a series of crisis that informed his thinking and shaped his life. Black Theology did not emerge out of any isolated reflections on the meaning of the gospel or the role of the church in society. Rather, the term and then the content of Black Theology was born out of the times, the Zeitgeist, the Seitz im leben in which Cone was living in the last 1960s and early 1970s. It was within a particular socio-political climate that James Cone wrote his first book, Black Theology and Black Power that was released in 1969.The book cannot be fully understood without reading with that historical context in mind. 

The first crisis was the question of whether one can be both black and Christian in the context of the late 1960s when the dual pressure of the Black Power Movement and the voice of Stokely Carmichael began to eclipse that of Martin Luther King, Jr. within the traditional Civil Rights community.

In 1966, James Meredith who had earlier integrated the University of Mississippi, began a one-man march across that state that he called “A March Against Fear”. He wanted to prove that a black person could walk across the length of that state without being harmed. He hoped his march would give black people in that state the courage to register to vote. Regrettably, he was shot during the first day of that march.

Other civil rights leaders rushed to Mississippi to resume the march that Meredith had begun. Among those who gathered were Dr. King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Stokely Carmichael of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). During a speech on July 28, 1966 near Greenwood, Mississippi, Stokely Carmichael said “We want Black Power”. He subsequently wrote a book entitled, Black Power with Charles Hamilton on that topic. Almost overnight, the focus of the Civil Rights Movement shifted from non-violent demonstrations calling for integration and voting rights, to Black Power in terms of economic empowerment and political influence. The focus also shifted from “black and white together” to white people being encouraged to leave the movement so that black people could be responsible for achieving their own freedom.

In addition to the rise of the Black Power movement that challenged the relevance of the black church, was the prominence of the Nation of Islam and the still popular voice of Malcolm X. This is the source of the second question of whether one could or should be black and CHRISTIAN? In the mid to late 1960s, the claim that Christianity was the “white man’s religion” and that all black people should be Muslim and not Christian was overwhelming the integrationist message of MLK, Jr. and most black clergy at that time. Christianity was the religion of the oppressor. Christianity was used by the KKK to justify their racist ideology. Christianity had been used to justify the slave trade and racial segregation. Upon entering one of the mosques of the Nation of Islam one would see a representation of the cross of Jesus with a noose extending from one of the crossbeams. This image had been created decades before Cone’s book on The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

Add to the voices of Stokely Carmichael and Malcom X, the novels and essays and speeches of James Baldwin. His novels, The Fire Next Time, Notes of a Native Son, If Beale Street Could Talk, and Go Tell it On the Mountain helped to create the socio-political climate into which James Cone attempted to speak. 

Cone’s challenge here was to appropriate the language of scripture, the Spiritual songs of black people from the 19th century, and the long overlooked black preachers that had been outspoken opponents of slavery and segregation, and from those sources to fashion a new approach to theology that focused on Jesus as an agent of liberation. He began with the Exodus story in the Old Testament and the way in which the power of God was used to deliver the Hebrew slaves from bondage under the most powerful nation in the world at that time. “God was on the side of the oppressed” was the claim of Black Theology. Then, Cone employed the language of Isaiah 61 and Luke 4, and suggested that the central message of the gospel was “the liberation of the oppressed”.

            The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good

news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim freedom to the prisoners and

recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the

Lord’s favor.

 Any reading of scripture that did not reach that conclusion was to be challenged. In fact, writing in his last book Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody in 2018, Cone said any other reading of scripture than that that which focused on God’s concern about the liberation of the oppressed was “a theology of the Anti-Christ”. [1]

Cone and the Black Church

This meant that conservative black Christians, a group that constitutes the majority of both black clergy and laity had to move away from a gospel rooted in the issue of personal salvation and church-based ministry, and embrace a gospel of liberation, resistance to white supremacy, advocacy for the self-determination of black people, and resistance to any continuing forms of discrimination based upon race or ethnicity. This would not be easy since the vast majority of black clergy had never embraced the Civil Rights Movement, much less something as new and unfamiliar as Black Theology.

One might have had the impression that because so many civil rights rallies occurred in black churches, and because so many leaders of that movement were black clergypersons, that all black churches were on-board with MLK, Jr. and his efforts. I know from personal experience that most black preachers showed little or no interest in the work of civil rights. If King was too radical for them, then Cone was terrifying to some and irrelevant to others. I remember a session of the Progressive National Baptist Convention where a famous black preacher stirred a crowd of over three thousand delegates with a sermon just before the lunch break. Cone was to address that same group after lunch. Cone and I sat together in the massive meeting room where fewer than fifty persons returned to hear about Black Theology and Black Power.

Cone and the White Church

If the heart of the gospel was God’s siding with the oppressed, and especially with persons whose oppression was the result of white supremacist values, then white evangelical Christians would have to answer for their silence or their complicity during the Civil Rights Movement. How could they say nothing about America’s “original sin” of racism, slavery, segregation, lynch mob justice, white violence against non-violent black protesters, and the historic and continued segregation of white churches and denominational structures. For Cone, the church, and especially white evangelical Christianity was part of the structure of white supremacy that reinforced the laws and customs that maintained an oppressive society. It is that same white evangelical group that was most responsible for the election of Donald Trump.

Cone’s second crisis involved his confrontation with white biblical scholars and theologians who never made the connection between the black freedom struggle and the God of the Exodus. This was true even for Cone’s faculty colleagues at Union Theological Seminary where he was teaching and where I was a student beginning in 1970. Union, which had only recently departed from its practice of admitting black students on a quota system, had little understanding of the black experience. This was the case even though it shared a border with the Harlem community that was at that time the largest black community in the country.

At the heart of Cone’s book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree was the question of how could Reinhold Niebuhr, the leading voice of progressive Christianity from the 1920s to the 1960 who  also taught at Union, never spoke or write a word about racism, lynch mob justice, the evils of the KKK, or the reality of white supremacy and white privilege.? Niebuhr began his ministry as a pastor in Detroit in the 1920s. From that location he was deeply concerned about the treatment of auto workers who sought better wages, better working conditions, and the right to form labor unions.

Niebuhr was keenly aware of the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, and he advised his friend and former Union Seminary colleague, Dietrich Bonhoeffer not to return to Germany, but to remain in the United States. Of course, Bonhoeffer did return to Germany to stand against Hitler and the Nazi ideology; a decision that resulted in his eventual arrest, confinement in Flossberg Concentration Camp in Germany, and his being torture and executed on the day before that camp was liberated by the American army. There was a sense of theology in Dietrich Bonhoeffer that led to direct action against oppression. That same sense did not reside within Reinhold Niebuhr.

How could Niebuhr live during the most tumultuous period of the 20th century, but not one time directly address the work of MLK, Jr. who quoted Moral Man and Immoral Society by Niebuhr in many of his speeches and writings? Needless to say, if Niebuhr was not engaged with or interested in racism and white supremacy, there was little to expect from the rest of that Union faculty, much less from any other theological faculty at less progressive schools.

The problem for white scholars was their inability or unwillingness to localize divine activity within the historical struggle for human right sled by black people and being played out in the streets of America. White scholars could not seem to comprehend that the social evils they  wrote about in their scholarly texts were in any way associated with the vicious resistance to the Freedom Struggle of black people as evidenced by the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, or the murder of three civil rights workers in Meridian, Mississippi in 1964or the beatings that took place on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Cone was arguing that to be a Christian was to see God at work on behalf of the oppressed, and to join with God in the eradication of that oppression.

Cone was familiar with all the scholarship of the 1950s and 1960s. His Ph.D. was based on the work of Karl Barth. but as he said in his last book:

For me, nothing was at stake in European theology. It didn’t matter whether Barth or Harnack was right in their debate about the meaning of revelation. I wasn’t ready to risk my life for that. Now with Black Power everything was at stake – the affirmation of black humanity in a white supremacist world. I was ready to die for black dignity.[2]

 Cone was prepared to risk his life and his career on the issue of black liberation and the belief that there was something that could be called a Black Theology, a theology that read the gospel through the experience of black people who have and are now contending to be free. This belief was as old as the slave songs of the 1800s and the preaching of Henry Highland Garnet and Henry McNeal Turner.

The challenge for Cone involved the search for what he called norms and sources, or the content from which theological reflection could be drawn. This was the primary task in his second book, A Black Theology of Liberation. While trained in traditional white, classical scholarship, he decided to look elsewhere for his own sources and inspiration. Those sources were first of all his own lived experience in the segregated south of the 1940s and 1950s. Add the lyrics and rhythms of black culture, including the Blues, the poems and essays of James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, and the spirituals and work songs of black people in which they were telling their own story of faith and hope and struggle. James Brown and Aretha Franklin were as much a resource for doing theology as were Martin Luther or John Calvin or Karl Barth. Finally, his sources also included the long sweep of black history, the teachings of scripture, and the centuries-long tradition of theological reflection dating back to the days of the early church, the Reformation, and the various strands of theology that have emerged over the last several hundred years.

The third challenge for Cone involved his own role in the midst of a street-level fight for freedom. Where could his skills and passions best be used? His first instinct was to join in on the marches, the rallies, the demonstrations, and the protests. However, there were hundreds and even thousands of persons who could fill that role. What was the responsibility of an African American in the 1960s and 1970s who had a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology? Bear in mind that MLK, Jr. earned that same degree from Boston University in 1956 but chose to turn away from the life of an academic and embrace the life of an activist. The question for Cone was whether he should do the same? As Harold Cruse debated in his 1967 book, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, black scholars need to resolve where they will stand during the struggle, and from which vantage point they will seek to make their contribution.[3]

Cone decided and was encouraged to make his contribution in the classroom, in the decidedly lonely work of research and writing, and at the lecturer’s podium. From that unique position he would challenge the current thinking of black and white Christians, the methodology of white theologians, and the very structure of white supremacy, white racism, and the biblical assumptions upon which those notions had rested for hundreds of years. “I speak and I write, he once said, for the marginalized, the oppressed, the people whose voices are not being heard and whose pain and problems are not being addressed”. You will hear these words coming from his mouth in a 2006 lecture at the end of my presentation his evening.

Here is the most astounding thing about the work and witness of James Cone from 1968 when he gave a series of lectures here at CRCDS that laid the foundations of Black Theology, until his death in 2018. His books, beginning with Black Theology and Black Power and ending 50-years later with Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody mark a body of literature that has all but replaced the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth and Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr as required reading in college and seminary classrooms. I have a full set of Church Dogmatics by Barth that I cannot give away. I also have a full set of the books by James Cone that I could never imagine wanting to give away.

There may be no other single person in the history of the 20th century in this country or around the world who single-handedly invented and established a new theological discipline, namely liberation theology, that is now a standard part of the curriculum in seminaries and divinity schools across the country and around the world. This is a monumental achievement. 


What Cone could not have known at first, but what he would later embrace without hesitation were the subsequent struggles of other oppressed or marginalized groups that would look to him, critique him, build upon him, and add to the chorus of persons who would find in the message of Moses and Jesus a message about their own liberation. Like the “Me Too Movement of today, many groups heard about a God who was on the side of the oppressed and said, “Me Too”. God is on our side as well as we struggle to overcome our particular form of oppression.

Liberation Theology framed within the context of Latin America and most closely associated with the work of the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez was the first outgrowth of Cone’s Black Theology.[4]  The focus here was less on race, and more on matters of economic inequality and the ways in which the behaviors of some people resulted in the perpetual poverty of others. Two quotes from Gutierrez make this point. Writing in 2003 he said:

            All theological inquiry is contextual. Our context today is characterized by a

glaring disparity between the rich and the poor. No serious Christian can quietly ignore this situation. It is no longer possible for someone to say ‘Well, I didn’t know about the suffering of the poor. Poverty has a visibility today that it did not have in the past.

Gutierrez continues:

An active concern for the poor is not only an obligation for those who feel a political vocation; all Christians must take the Gospel message of justice and equality seriously. Christians cannot forgo their responsibility to say a prophetic word about unjust economic conditions. Poverty poses a major challenge to every Christian conscience and therefore to theology.[5]

Feminist Theology was the next movement to emerge as an outgrowth of the liberation movement, this time with gender and not race or income taking center stage. This movement began in the 1970s through the work of Rosemary Radford Reuther, Letty Russell, Phyllis Trible and others.[6] The issue here is the issue of sexism as the basis for exploitation and oppression. Christine M. Smith writes: Sexism involves the systematic denial, exploitation, and oppression of women. As the hierarchical gender structuring of personal and social reality, sexism assures and secures male domination. She continues by saying, “Male dominance is dependent on men exercising their control and power over women with whatever means necessary. Violence often becomes the means within which men create, maintain, and expand their male dominance. Lying at the heart of sexism, says Smith is misogyny or “the hatred of women” as manifested in various forms of violence by men against women. “Rape, incest, and woman battering are forms of sexual violence. All forms of violence against women, all forms of sexual violence, serve to reinforce male domination and gender hierarchy. Male supremacy demands control and fear for its maintenance”.[7]

Feminist theologians included several other defining issues such as wage disparity between men and women doing the same job, women’s reproductive rights, and the depiction and treatment of women in popular culture; most especially in pornography. Of course, the center of feminist theology is the subordination of women inside the church by denying them access to leadership positions. This denial is based upon the very narrow understandings of I Corinthians 14:34-35 and I Timothy 2:11-15.

Womanist Theology was the next to emerge, and it was a critique of both Black Theology and Feminist Theology. Beginning in the 1980s, Womanist Theology built on the literary work of Alice Walker who coined the term “womanish” which meant a girl acting older than her age or being more aggressive that was expected by society. Womanist Theology is rooted in what Jacqueline Grant calls “the tri-dimensional experience” of being a poor, black woman living in a capitalistic and patriarchal culture where the black church is an active agent in one’s oppression.[8]

Womanist theologians remind us that it is possible for some people to experience a single form of oppression based upon race or class or gender without having to experience the other two. White women may experience sexism, but they are still able to find some shelter under the banner of white privilege. Black men might experience racism, but they still enjoy many of the economic benefits of being male in a patriarchal culture. This became clear to me years ago, when my salary for my first job at the age of 24 was substantially higher than my own mother’s salary when she retired at the age of 65.

As with Feminist Theology, Womanist Theology directs its critique to the church, and in this instance to the black churches in this country. They point back to Jarena Lee who in1809 sought ordination by the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She was told by Richard Allen, the first bishop of that church that “our discipline knew nothing about it – it did not call for women preachers”.[9] As the New Testament scholar, Demetrius Williams points out in his book, An End to This Strife, there is great  hypocrisy involved in black churches that embrace part, but not all of Galatians 3:28 where Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. Williams says, “African American churches can no longer advocate racial equality on biblical grounds and at the same time support sexism in the churches using the same Bible”.[10]

Womanist Theology reminds the world that even though black women and black men shared equally in the forced labor and unspeakable brutality of slavery, there was an additional area of abuse and oppression that was unique to black women living in bondage; sexual violence. It is safe to say that the value of a black woman in slavery was tied to her work capacity and her womb capacity; to the labor she was forced to perform and to sexual assault whether for the sheer pleasure of white men, or to increase the slave population through birth rather than through the former slave trade where slaves were purchased. It was far more cost effective to breed slaves in this country, rather than import them from another country or buy them at the slave markets that were to be found throughout the slave-holding regions.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade ended in this country in 1808. It is estimated that at that time fewer than 800,000 persons had been forcibly brought to this country from African nations or from Caribbean plantations. However, by 1865 when slavery was ended by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, there were over four million persons of African ancestry living in the most violent and repressive form of human slavery ever seen on this earth. How was that possible? How did the slave population increase five-fold from 1808 to 1865? The answer is clear; black women’s bodies were worked by day, and their wombs were monetized by night; again, either for white men’s pleasure or white men’s profit. Here this story as told by M. Shawn Copeland about a slave woman:

My mother’s mistress had three boys – one twenty-one, one nineteen, and one seventeen. One day, Old Mistress had gone away to spend the day. Mother always worked in the house, and while she was alone, the boys came in and threw her down on the floor and tied her down so she couldn’t struggle. One after the other used her as long as they wanted for the whole afternoon.[11]

Copeland continues: “Slavery made black women’s bodies sexually vulnerable and available”. [12]

Other forms of liberation theology have emerged over the last twenty years. They include Post-Colonial Theology[13] where the focus is on the worldview and religious practices of nations all over the world that have been freed from the control of European nations that had formerly occupied and exploited their countries. Substitute Euro-Centrism as another version of the assumption of white supremacy and white privilege and you enter the work of post-colonial theology.

Most recently there is American Indian Liberation also called a Theology of Sovereignty[14] that tries to recapture the indigenous religious and cultural traditions of the many hundreds of Native Americans that had been suppressed by white American Christians, politicians, settlers, and the U.S. Cavalry. Theology of Sovereignty forces this country to think about the history of oppression, genocide, and exploitation involving such evils as The Indian Removal Act of 1830 that forced all Native Americans east of the Mississippi River to vacate their land under the forced supervision of the U.S. Army. It forces us to recall “The trail of tears” that refers to the thousands of Cherokee and other Native American groups that died during that forced removal.

However, it also forces us to think about places like Standing Rock in North Dakota where land deemed sacred by the Lakota Sioux, land that is theirs by treaty, has become the center of a dispute involving crude oil pipelines that run straight through their territory )(without their consent), resulting in oil spills that endanger the water supply for several neighboring states. Water tainted by lead pipes in Flint, Michigan will soon be joined by water tainted by oil spills in the Dakotas and surrounding states.

Queer Theology has also emerged as a theology of liberation. Here the emphasis is on oppression based upon sexual orientation, and upon the selective use of biblical texts that serve to justify and undergird that oppression.[15] Every major American denomination, and most of its local churches are being ripped apart by conflicting views about the status of LGBTQ persons, not only in the church, but their right to live free and without threat or intimidation in society.

Over time, James Cone became a centering force in the fight against racism, white supremacy, homophobia, nationalism and xenophobia. While he began with that form of oppression that was the result of his own lived experience, he was willing and able to understand that black people are not the only oppressed people in this country or in this world, and that race is not the sole reason for that oppression. The same God who Cone pointed to as being on the side of the oppressed when the issue was about race, is the same God who is on the side of the oppressed when the issue is about gender, class and poverty, sexual orientation, immigration, colonization, and any other form of oppression that causes other of our brothers and sisters around the world to say “Me Too”! That is the lasting legacy of James Cone.

Marvin A. McMickle, Ph.D. is the President and Professor of African American Religious Studies at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity  School

[1] James Cone, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018, p. 18.

[2] James Cone, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018, p. 8.

[3] Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, New York: Morrow Books, 1967.

[4] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1971

[5] “Remembering the Poor: An Interview with Gustavo Gutierrez”, The American Catholic Review – AmericanMagazine.org, February 3, 2003.

[6] Rosemary Reuther, Liberation Theology: Human Hope Confronts Christian History and American Power; Letty Russell, Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, Phyllis Trible, Text of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives.

[7] Christine M. Smith, Preaching as Weeping, Confession and Resistance: Radical Responses to Radical Evil, Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992, pp.67-71.

[8] Marvin A. McMickle, “Womanist Theology” in An Encyclopedia of African American Christian Heritage, Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2002, pp. 274-275.

[9] Ibid, pp. 70-72.

[10] Demetrius Williams, An End to This Strife, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004, p. 71.

[11] M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010, p.34.

[12] Ibid, p. 35.

[13] Musa W. Dube, Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2000.

[14] George E. “Tink” Tinker, American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008.

[15] Via, Dan o. and Roberta J. Gagnon, Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003.

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