NEW YORK — The Rev. Dr. James H. Cone, a central figure in the development of black liberation theology in the 1960s and ’70s who argued for racial justice and an interpretation of the Christian Gospel that elevated the voices of the oppressed, died Saturday. He was 79.
His death was announced by Union Theological Seminary, where he was a distinguished professor. A spokeswoman for the seminary said he died at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
Rev. Cone was a theologian, minister, and author. He described black liberation theology as “an interpretation of the Christian Gospel from the experience and perspectives and lives of people who are at the bottom in society — the lowest economic and racial groups.”
In an interview in 2008, Rev. Cone said that in the 1960s, he saw his faith imperiled by the growing appeal to blacks of the Nation of Islam and the black power movement.
“Christianity was seen as the white man’s religion,” he said. “I wanted to say: ‘No! The Christian Gospel is not the white man’s religion. It is a religion of liberation, a religion that says God created all people to be free.’ But I realized that for black people to be free, they must first love their blackness.”
For decades, Rev. Cone spoke forcefully about racial inequalities that persisted in the form of economic injustice, mass incarceration, and police shootings.
“That kind of consistency is just rare in American intellectual life, to be focused so unflinchingly on the most vulnerable in our society,” said Harvard philosopher Cornel West. “James Cone was the theological giant in our midst who had a love affair with oppressed people, especially black people.”
James Hal Cone was born on Aug. 5, 1938, in Fordyce, Ark. He graduated from Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., with a bachelor’s degree and received a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University.
He pointed to the Detroit riots of 1967 — a series of violent confrontations between mostly black Detroit residents and police that resulted in the deaths of 43 people — as a turning point that inspired him to challenge white theologians more forcefully. “I heard the voices of black blood crying out to God and to humanity,” he said last year.
His 1969 book, “Black Theology & Black Power,” is considered the founding text of black liberation theology. In a 1997 introduction to an updated version of the book, Rev. Cone wrote that he “wanted to speak on behalf of the voiceless black masses in the name of Jesus, whose Gospel I believed had been greatly distorted by the preaching theology of white churches.”
As a professor, he encouraged his students to pursue their own ideas rather than imitating his, said the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, an author, priest, and the dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary.
“He gave many of us the opportunity to study and find our own theological voice at a time when we would not have had an opportunity to do so,” Douglas said.
In 2008, black liberation theology made headlines because one of its proponents, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., had been a minister for Barack Obama, then a presidential candidate.
Wright’s comments on racial issues became a campaign liability for Obama because he had suggested that the United States was attacked on Sept. 11 because it engaged in terrorism of its own, and that the government could have used the virus that causes AIDS as a tool for genocide against minorities. Obama renounced Wright in April 2008.
The next month, Rev. Cone described the theology to The New York Times as a combination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
“You might say we took our Christianity from Martin and our emphasis on blackness from Malcolm,” he said.
He added that although he disagreed with Wright’s more incendiary comments, “deep down in all of us is that Malcolm X who cries out in such strong language.”
This year, Rev. Cone won the Grawemeyer Award in Religion for his most recent book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” which drew parallels between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people in the United States. His recently completed memoir is expected to be published later this year.
Rev. Cone leaves his sons, Michael and Charles; his daughters, Robynn and Krystal; a brother, Charles; and two grandchildren.