On last Thursday, on a six-acre site overlooking the State Capitol in Alabama, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened to the public. The country’s only memorial dedicated to remember the thousands of black lives that were cut short by state supported terrorism–lynching.
That very same day, the Reverend Traci Blackmon, Executive Minister of the United Church of Christ for Justice and Witness, described to a nearly all white crowd gathered at the International House on the campus of the University of San Diego her recent pre-opening visit to the memorial as a powerful witness to a horrific history.
The holograms, the 800 steel monuments carrying the names of more than 4,400 people killed between 1877 and 1950, and the life-like statues recall America’s greatest sin against Black America–black blood crying out from the ground. The terror of lynching in this country is a sin that the
The Rev. Dr. James Hal Cone called the country to reckon with injustice whenever he spoke from pulpits and platforms, or wrote from his professorial desk at Union Theological Seminary in the City New York. He named lynching as modern crucifixion and further connected lynching with mass incarceration–and called upon white Christians in particular to see their complicity in the state-sanctioned murder of their black siblings.
On the opening weekend of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in the small hours of the morning, Dr. Cone, the author of the ground-breaking theological masterpiece, The Cross and the Lynching Tree and more than 11 other books (including a posthumous memoir entitled, Said I Wasn’t Gonna Tell Nobody) and 150 articles, went home to be with the Lord.
Dr. Cone was a distinguished professor of systematic theology and prophetic voice who boldly declared, in a field dominated by white men who were advancing the thinking of other dead white men–that God is not only the side of the oppressed, but that “God is Black [and] Jesus is Black.” Cone’s uniquely pitched voice, rising and falling like a masterful preacher, was the first to critique the dominating presence of whiteness in the theological academy, and in so doing forced the academy to accept what Black folk had been saying, singing and praying on slave plantations over 400 years ago and in Black Church across the country–“Yes God is real, for I can feel, him in my soul!”
In 1969 Cone wrote his first book, Black Theology and Black Power, in a makeshift office space in his brother’s AME church. Cecil Cone, like his brother was a theologian and AME preacher who by the age of 16 had been appointed by the bishop to his own church. It was in that safe safe that Dr James Cone wrote with righteous rage about need to celebrate blackness and faith in Jesus. In a lecture given at Union Theological Seminary, where he spent nearly 50 years teaching, he recalled writing Black Theology and Black Power from 7AM to Midnight every day except on Sunday, and how the spirituals and the blues keeping him company throughout his writing journey.
In God of the Oppressed Cone argued, as forcefully as he did in his previous work, that American has developed a insensitivity to Black suffering, and rendered white theology bankrupt in its refusal to see how the structures of systemic violence and racism embedded in the very fabric of this country consistently pushed Black folks to the margins of society. Cone not only pushed the black church–but he challenged the white church to join God in the struggle for black liberation in this country. He consistently questioned “Why didn’t we hear from the so-called nonviolent Christians when black people were violently enslaved, violently lynched, and violently ghettoized in the name of freedom and democracy?”, demanding a response that would side with a God who always stands on the side of freedom and liberation and against oppressors and oppression. Critiquing the Black Church Cone said, “You go to almost any black church today, and you don’t hear spirituals anymore. What you hear is this happy, ‘I’m prosperous’ kind of stuff. I’m not for that. You don’t come to church to be entertained. You come to wrestle with your spirit.”
Cone wrestled throughout his life and developed the case for Black Liberation Theology. It was “the voices of black blood crying out” from the ground that compelled him to never forget their fight for freedom, even amid the whip and the lash, and make it his own. Cone’s Black Liberation Theology was most visibly articulated in the preaching and teaching of the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr, pastor emeritus of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Wright who led largest church in the United Church of Christ for over 36 years encouraged congregants like Common, Barack and Michelle Obama, to exercise their faith as people who are “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian.” In breaking with traditional theology, Cone made the Black experience the backbone of his Christian thinking– using slave narratives, the spirituals, the blues, and the empowering prophetic witness of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. As Cone’s thinking matured he began to push his writing and teaching to wrestle with the religio-cultural experiences of marginalized voices like James Baldwin–remarking in a Huffington Post interview with former student Paul Raushenbush in 2015: “God is red. God is brown. God is yellow. God is gay…I don’t use blackness as a way to exclude anyone.”
Cone, born in Fordyce, Ark, was a devoted son of the Black Church–and it was to the Black Church that he committed his full life. Raised in the New Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bearden, Cone’s preachers during his formative years preached about a God who was fundamentally on the side of the oppressed; a God who deeply cared about the conditions of the poor and marginalized people–especially black people whose backs were broken from having picked cotton all day, and whose fingers bled from having woven reed basket under southern suns, and whose children, barefooted and often barely clothed, were indeed the powerful hope and dream of the enslaved.
Cone embodied the hope of the slave, and in 1958 and 1961 respectively, earned a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Divinity from Philander Smith and Garrett Theological Seminary. He then went on to earn the Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy from Northwestern University in 1963 and 1965. In My Soul Looks Back, Cone asks, “What is the relationship between my training as a theologian and the black struggle for freedom? For what reason has God allowed a poor black boy from Bearden to become a professional systematic theologian?” He concluded, “As I struggled with these questions…I could not escape the overwhelming conviction that God’s Spirit was calling me to do what I could for the enhancement of justice in the world, especially on behalf of my people.”
Cone lived a passionate, spirit-filled life, and yet his most enduring legacy is not to be found in the intellectual library he left behind, but the lived experience of freedom and hope by Christians of every color and hue. Cone contended that “any talk about God that fails to make God’s liberation of the oppressed its starting point is not Christian [and] Any message that is not related to the liberation of the poor in a society is not Christ’s message.” Although Cone definitatively functioned within an African American Christian context, his message of love, liberation and justice for all is one that continues to resonates across countless cultural, ideological and even religious boundaries.