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Architect of Black Liberation Theology Dies at 79

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The Rev. Dr. James H. Cone — the prolific author and founder of Black Liberation Theology — died on Saturday. He was 79.

Cone’s groundbreaking works Black Theology & Black Power and A Black Theology of Liberation, inspired a generation of theologians and activists. He was on the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York City for more than five decades.

“Dr. James Cone grounded theology in real-work concepts within a Black intellectual tradition. His ideas and analysis disrupted common understanding of divinity, the role of the church and the foundations of Western religious thought,” said Dr. Christopher M. Tinson, an associate professor of Africana Studies and History at Hampshire College.

Cone “spoke with a joyous rebellion in his heart,” according to Tinson.

“I will never forget his remark that his Holy Trinity consisted of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin,” said Tinson. “He fully understood that to be a person of faith required a commitment to struggling for a just world no matter the conditions. He will be missed, but his contributions will endure.”

Born in Fordyce, Ark., Cone graduated in 1958 from Philander Smith College, a historically Black college, and later earned a bachelor of divinity degree from Garrett Theological Seminary. He later earned a master’s of art and Ph.D. from Northwestern University.

Dr. James H. ConeDr. James H. Cone

“In so many ways, James Cone has been Union Theological Seminary for the past 50 years,” said Union president Rev. Serene Jones. “To say his death leaves a void is a staggering understatement. His prophetic voice, deep kindness and fierce commitment to Black liberation embodied not just the very best or our seminary, but of the theological field as a whole and of American prophetic thought and action.”

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, a professor of History and International Relations and the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, said he recently exchanged emails with the towering scholar.

“He told me he appreciated my work, leaving me in the utter shock of happiness, allowing my life to come full circle,” said Kendi. “I will always be grateful for the life and work of James Cone.”

An ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Cone said that his coining of the term Black Liberation Theology was designed to “speak on behalf of the voiceless Black masses in the name of Jesus, whose gospel I believed has been greatly distorted by the preaching theology of White churches.”

His most recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, won him the 2018 Grawemeyer Award in Religion, jointly awarded by Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the University of Louisville. He completed a memoir titled Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody that will be published later this year.

“Dr. Cone was one of the founding fathers of an entire field of study,” said Dr. Eddie S. Glaude Jr., the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African-American Studies at Princeton University. “Fearless in his pursuit of wisdom and unrelenting in his challenge of White supremacy and his pursuit of justice. We’ve lost a towering mind and spirit.”

Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at [email protected]

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