Chapter 11: Martin, Malcolm and Black Theology, by James H. Cone

Ethical Issues in the Struggles for Justice
by Daniel Chetti and M.P. Joseph

Chapter 11: Martin, Malcolm and Black Theology, by James H. Cone

(James H. Cone is Briggs Distinguished Professor at Union Theological Seminary, New York.)


America, I don’t plan to let you rest until that day comes into being when all God’s children will be respected, and every [person] will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. America, I don’t plan to let you rest until from every city hall in the country, justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. America, I don’t plan to let you rest until from every state house..., [persons] will sit in the seat who will do justly, who will love mercy, and who will walk humbly before their God. America I don’t plan to let you rest until you live it out that all [persons] are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. America, I don’t plan to let you rest until you live it out that you believe what you have read in [people] to dwell upon the face of the earth.1

Martin Luther King, Jr.

All other people have their own religion, which teaches them of a God whom they can associate with themselves, a God who at least looks like one of their own kind. But, we so-called Negroes, after 400 years of masterful brainwashing by the slave master, picture ‘our God’ with the same blond hair, pale skin, and cold blue eyes of our murderous slave master. His Christian religion teaches us that black is a curse, thus we who accept the slave master’s religion find ourselves loving and respecting everything and everyone except black, and can picture God as being anything else EXCEPT BLACK.2

Malcolm X

The prophetic and angry voices of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X together revolutionized theological thinking in the African-American community. Before Martin and Malcolm, black ministers and religious thinkers repeated the doctrines and mimicked the theologies they read and heard in white churches and seminaries, grateful to be allowed to worship God in an integrated sanctuary and to study theology with whites in a seminary classroom.

I remember my excitement when I was accepted as a student at Garrett Theological Seminary more than thirty-five years ago. It was my first educational experience in a predominantly white environment. Like most blacks of that time who attended white colleges and graduate schools, I tried hard to be accepted as just another student. But no matter how hard I tried, I was never just another student in the eyes of my white classmates and my professors. I was a Negro student -- which meant a person of mediocre intelligence (until proven otherwise) and whose history and culture were not worthy of theological reflection.

No longer able to accept black invisibility in theology and getting angrier and angrier at the white brutality meted out against Martin King and other civil rights activists, my Southern, Arkansas racial identity began to rise in my theological consciousness. Like a dormant volcano, it soon burst forth in a manner that exceeded my intellectual control.

"You are a racist!" I yelled angrily at my doctoral advisor who was lecturing to a theology class of about 40 students. "You have been talking for weeks now about the wrongdoings of Catholics against Protestants in 16th and 17th century Europe," I continued, raising my voice even higher, "but you’ve said absolutely nothing about the monstrous acts of violence by White Protestants against Negroes in the American South today in 1961!"

Devastated that I -- who was a frequent presence in his office and home -- would call him a racist, my advisor, a grave and staid English gentleman, had no capacity for understanding black rage. He paced back and forth for nearly a minute before he stopped suddenly and stared directly t me with an aggrieved and perplexed look on his face. Then he shouted, "That’s simply not true! Class dismissed."

He stormed out of the classroom to his office. I followed him. "Jim," he turned in protest, "You know I’m not a racist!" "I know" I said with an apologetic tone but still laced with anger. "I’m sorry I blurted out my frustrations at you. But I am angry about racism in America and the rest of the world. I find it very difficult to study theology and never talk about it in class." "I’m concerned about racism too," he retorted with emphasis. We then talked guardedly about racism in Britain and the U.S.

The more I thought about the incident, then and later, the more I realized that my angry outburst was not about the personal prejudices of my advisor or any other professor at Garret. It was about how the discipline of theology had been defined so as to exclude any engagement with the African-American struggle against racism. I did not have the words to say to my advisor what I deeply felt. I just knew intuitively that something was seriously wrong with studying theology during the peak of the civil rights era and never once reading a book about racial justice in America or talking about it in class. It was as if the black struggle for justice had nothing to do with the study of theology -- a disturbing assumption which I gradually became convinced was both anti-Christian and racist. But since I could not engage in a disinterested discussion about race as if I were analyzing Karl Barth’s christology, I kept my views about racism in theology to myself and only discussed them with the small group of African-American students who had similar views.

After I completed the Ph.D. in systematic theology in the fall of 1964, I returned to Arkansas to teach at Philander Smith College in Little Rock. No longer cloistered in a white academic environment and thus free of the need of my professors’ approval, I turned my attention to the rage I had repressed during six years of graduate education. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement helped me to take another look at the theological meaning of the black struggle for justice. My seminary education was nearly worthless in this regard, except as a negative stimulant. My mostly neo-orthodox professors talked incessantly about the "mighty acts of God" in biblical history. But they objected to any effort to link God’s righteousness with the political struggles of the poor today, especially among the black poor fighting for justice in the United States. God’s righteousness, they repeatedly said, can never be identified with any human project. The secular theologians were not much better. They proclaimed God’s death with glee and published God’s obituary in Time magazine. But they ignored Martin King’s proclamation of God’s righteous presence in the black freedom struggle.

Although latecomers to the civil rights movement, a few white theologians in the North supported it and participated in marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr. But the African-American fight for justice made little or no impact on their intellectual discourse about God, Jesus, and theology. Mainstream religion scholars viewed King as a civil rights activist who happened to be a preacher rather than a creative theologian in his own right.

It is one thing to think of Martin King as a civil rights activist who transformed America’s race relations and quite another to regard racial justice as having theological significance. Theology, as I studied it in the 1960’s, was narrowly defined to exclude the practical and intellectual dimensions of race. That was why Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Susan Sontang were read in theology courses but not Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. DuBois, and James Baldwin. Likewise Harry Emerson Fosdick and Ralph Sockman figured high on the reading lists in homiletics courses but not Howard Thurman and Martin King. White theologians reflected on the meaning of God’s presence in the world from the time of the Exodus to the civil rights revolution and never once made a sustained theological connection between these two liberation events. The black experience was theologically meaningless to them.

Unfortunately black ministers and theologians were strongly influenced by the white way of thinking about God and theology. When Richard Allen and other black Christians separated from white churches in the late 18th and early 19th centuries they did not regard their action as having theological meaning. They thought of it as a social act, totally unrelated to how blacks and whites think about God. That was why they accepted without alterations the confessions of faith of the white denominations from which they separated. But how is it possible to enslave and segregate people and still have correct thinking about God? That was a question which black ministers did not ask.

Even Martin King did not ask that question so as to expose the flawed white liberal thinking about God that he had encountered in graduate school. King thought his theology was derived primarily from his graduate education, and to a large degree, it was, especially his ghostwritten books and speeches to white audiences. As a result, he was unaware of the profoundly radical interpretation of Christianity expressed in his civil rights activity and proclaimed in his sermons.

But what King did in the South and later the North and what he proclaimed in sermons and impromptu addresses profoundly influenced our understanding of the Christian faith. King did not do theology in the safe confines of academia -- writing books, reading papers to learned societies, and teaching graduate students. He did theology with his life and proclaimed it in his preaching. Through marches, sit-ins, and boycotts and with the thunder of his voice, King hammered out his theology. He aroused the conscience of white America and made the racist a moral pariah. in the church and the society. He also inspired passive blacks to take charge of their lives, to believe in themselves, in God’s creation of them as a free people, equally deserving of justice as whites.

King was a public theologian. He turned the nation’s television networks into his pulpit and classroom, and he forced white Christians to confront their own beliefs. He challenged all Americans in the church, academy, and every segment of the culture to face head-on the great moral crisis of racism in the U.S. and the world. It was impossible to ignore King and the claims he made about religion and justice. While he never regarded himself as an academic theologian, he transformed our understanding of the Christian faith by making the practice of justice an essential ingredient of its identity.

It could be argued that Martin King’s contribution to the identity of Christianity in America and the world was as far-reaching as Augustine’s in the fifth century and Luther’s in the sixteenth.3 Before King no Christian theologian showed so conclusively in his actions and words the great contradiction between racial segregation and the gospel of Jesus. In fact. racial segregation was so widely accepted in the churches and societies throughout the world that few white theologians, did see the injustice, did not regard the issue important enough to even write or talk about it. But after King no theologian or preacher dares to defend racial segregation. He destroyed its moral legitimacy. Even conservative white preachers like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell make a point to condemn racial segregation and do not want to be identified with racism. That change is due almost single-handedly to the theological power of King’s actions and words.

Martin King was extremely modest about his political achievements and rather naive about the intellectual impact he made on the theological world. Theologians and seminarians have also been slow to recognize the significance of his theological contribution. But I am convinced that Martin Luther King, Jr., was the most important and influential Christian theologian in America’s history. Some would argue that the honor belongs to Jonathan Edwards or Reinhold Niebuhr or even perhaps Walter Rauschenbusch. (King acknowledged that the latter two, along with other white theologians, had a profound influence on his thinking.) Where we come down on this issue largely depends upon how we understand the discipline of theology. Those who think that the honor belongs to Edwards or Niebuhr or Rauschenbusch cannot possibly regard the achievement of racial justice as a significant theological issue, because none of them made justice for black people a central element of their theological program. Edwards, Rauschenbusch, and Niebuhr were white theologians who sought to speak only to their own racial community. They did not use their intellectual power to support people of color in their fight for justice. Blacks and the Third World poor were virtually invisible to them.

I am a black liberation theologian. No theologian in America is going to receive high marks from me who ignores race or pushes it to the margin of their theological agenda. But my claim about the importance of race for theology in America does not depend on one being a black liberation theologian. Any serious observer of America’s history can see that it is impossible to understand the political and religious meaning of this nation without dealing with race. Race has mattered as long as there has been an America. How then can one be regarded as the most important and influential Christian theologian in this land and not deal with racism, its most intractable sin?

Martin King is America’s most important Christian theologian because of what he said and did about race from a theological point of view. He was a liberation theologian before the phrase was coined by African-American and Latin American religious thinkers in the late Sixties and early Seventies. King’s mature reflections on the gospel of Jesus emerged primarily from his struggle for racial justice in America. His political practice preceded his theological reflections. He was an activist-theologian who showed that one could not be a Christian in any authentic sense without fighting for justice among people.

One can observe the priority of practice, as a hermeneutical principle, in his sermons, essays, and books. Stride Toward Freedom (1958), Why We Can’t Wait (1964). and Where Do We Go From Here (1967) were reflections on the political and religious meaning (respectively) of the Montgomery bus boycott (1955-56). the Birmingham movement (1963), and the rise of Black Power (1966). In these texts, King defined the black freedom movement as seeking to redeem the soul of America and to liberate its political and religious institutions from the cancer of racism. I contend that as a theologian to America he surpassed the others, because he addressed our most persistent and urgent sickness.

But two other features of King’s work elevate him above Edwards, Rauschenbusch, and Niebuhr. The first is his international stature and influence. I do not mean his Nobel Prize, but his contribution beyond the particularity of the black American struggle. He influenced liberation movements in China, Ireland. Germany, India, South Africa, Korea, and the Philippines. Hardly any liberation movements among the poor are untouched by the power of his thought.

Secondly. King was North America’s most courageous theologian. He did not seek the protection of a university appointment and a quiet office. One of his most famous theological statements was written in jail. Other ideas were formed in a brief breathing space after days of exposure to physical danger in the streets of Birmingham, Selma, and Chicago and the dangerous roads of Mississippi. King did theology in solidarity with the "least of these" and in the face of death. "If physical death," he said, "is the price I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from the permanent death of the spirit, then nothing could be more redemptive." Real theology is risky as King’s courageous life demonstrated.

From King black liberation theology received its Christian identity, which he understood as the practice of justice and love in human relations and the hope that God has not left the "least of these" alone in their suffering. However, that identity was only one factor which contributed to the creation of black liberation theology. The other was Malcolm X, who identified the struggle as a black struggle. As long as black freedom and the Christian way in race relations were identified exclusively with integration and nonviolence, black theology was not possible. Integration and nonviolence required blacks to turn the other cheek to white brutality, join the mainstream of American society, and do theology without anger and without reference to the history and culture of African-Americans. It meant seeing Christianity exclusively through the eyes of its white interpreters. Malcolm prevents that from happening.

I remember clearly when Malcolm and black power made a decisive and permanent imprint upon my theological consciousness. I was teaching at Adrian College (a predominately white United Methodist institution) in Adrian, Michigan, trying to make sense out of my vocation as a theologian. The black rage that ignited the Newark and Detroit riots in July 1967, killing nearly eighty people, revolutionized my theological consciousness. Nothing in seminary prepared me for this historic moment. It forced me to confront the blackness of my identity and to make theological sense of it.

Martin King helped to define my Christian identity but was silent about the meaning of blackness in a world of white supremacy. His public thinking about the faith was designed to persuade white Christians to take seriously the humanity of Negroes. H challenged whites to be true to what they said in their political and religious documents of freedom and democracy. What King did not initially realize was how deeply flawed white Christian thinking is regarding race and the psychological damage done to the self-image of blacks.

To understand white racism and black rage in America, I turned to Malcolm X and black power. While King accepted white logic, Malcolm rejected it. "When [people] get angry,’ Malcolm said, "they aren’t interested in logic, they aren’t interested in odds, they aren’t interested in consequences. When they get angry, they realize that the condition that they’re in -- that their suffering is unjust, immoral, illegal, and that anything they do to correct it or eliminate it, they’re justified. When you develop that type of anger and speak in that voice, then we’ll get some kind of respect and recognition, and some changes from these people who have been promising us falsely already for far too long."4

Malcolm saw more clearly than King the depth and complexity of racism in America, especially in the North. The North was more clever than the South and thus knew how to camouflage its exploitation of black people. White Northern liberals represented themselves as the friends of the Negro and deceived King and many other blacks into believing that they really wanted to achieve racial justice in America. But Malcolm knew better and he exposed their hypocrisy. He called white liberals "foxes" in contrast to Southern "wolves." Malcolm saw no difference between the two, except that one smiles and the other growls when they eat you. Northern white liberals hated Malcolm for his uncompromising, brutal honesty. But blacks, especially the young people, loved him for it. He said publicly what most blacks felt but were afraid to say except privately among themselves.

I first heard Malcolm speak while I was a student at Garrett but I did not really listen to him. I was committed to Martin King and hoped that he would accept the invitation offered him to become a professor of theology at Garrett. I regarded Malcolm as a racist and would have nothing to do with him. Malcolm X did not enter my theological consciousness until I left seminary and was challenged by the rise of the black consciousness movement in the middle of the 1960’s. Black Power, a child of Malcolm, forced me to take a critical look at Martin King and to discover his limits.

It is one thing to recognize that the gospel of Jesus demands justice in race relations and quite another to recognize that it demands that African Americans accept their blackness and reject its white distortions. When I turned to Malcolm, I discovered my blackness and realized that I could never be who I was called to be until I embraced my African heritage -- completely and enthusiastically. Malcolm put the word "black" in black theology. He taught black scholars in religion and many preachers that a colorless Christianity is a joke -- only found in the imaginary world of white theology. It is not found in the real world of white seminaries and churches. Nor is it found in black churches. That black people hate themselves is no accident of history. As I listened to Malcolm and meditated on his analysis of racism in America and the world, I became convinced by his rhetorical virtuosity. Speaking to blacks, his primary audience, he said:

Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the sole of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you to hate the race you belong to so much that you don’t want to be around each other? You should ask yourself, ‘who taught you to hate being what God gave you?’5

Malcolm challenged black ministers to take a critical look at Christianity, Martin King, and the civil rights movement. The challenge was so deep that we found ourselves affirming what many persons regarded as theological opposites: Martin and Malcolm, civil rights and black power, Christianity and blackness.

Just as Martin King may be regarded as America’s most influential theologian and preacher, Malcolm X may be regarded as America’s most trenchant race critic. As Martin’s theological achievement may be compared to Augustine’s and Luther’s, Malcolm’s race critique is as far-reaching as Marx’s class critique and the current feminist critique of gender. Malcolm was the great master of suspicion in the area of race. No one before or after him analyzed the role of Christianity in promoting racism and its mental and material consequences upon the lives of blacks as Malcolm did. He has no peer.

Even today, whites do not feel comfortable listening to or reading Malcolm. They prefer Martin because he can easily be made more palatable to their way of thinking. That is why we celebrate Martin’s birthday as a national holiday, and nearly every city has a street named in his honor. Many seminaries have a chair in his name, even though their curriculums do not take his theology seriously. When alienated blacks turn to Malcolm, whites turn to Martin, as if they really care about his ideas, which most do not. Whites only care about Martin as a way of undermining the black allegiance to Malcolm.

When Malcolm X was resurrected in Black Power in the second half of the 1960s, whites turned to Martin King. White religious leaders tried to force militant black ministers to choose between Martin and Malcolm, integration and separation, Christianity and Black Power. But we rejected their demand and insisted on the importance of both. The tension between Martin and Malcolm, integration and separation, Christianity and blackness created black theology. It was analogous to the "double-consciousness;" the "two unreconciled strivings," that W.E.B. DuBois wrote about in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903.

Martin King taught black ministers that the meaning of Christianity was inextricably linked with the fight for justice in the society. That was his great contribution to black theology. He gave it its Christian identity, putting the achievement of social justice at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. He did not write a great treatise on the theme of Christianity and justice. He organized a movement that transformed Christian thinking about race and the struggles for justice in America and throughout the world.

Malcolm X taught black ministers and scholars that the identity of African-Americans as a people was inextricably linked with blackness. This was his great contribution to black theology. Malcolm gave black theology its black identity, putting blackness at the center of who we were created to be. Like Martin, Malcolm did not write a scholarly treatise on the theme of blackness and self. He revolutionized black self-understanding with the power of his speech.

The distinctiveness of black theology is the bringing together of Martin and Malcolm in creative tension -- their ideas about Christianity and justice and blackness and self. Neither Martin nor Malcolm sought to do that. The cultural identity of Christianity was not important to Martin because he understood it in the "universal" categories he was taught in graduate school. His main concern was to link the identity of Christianity with social justice, oriented in love and defined by hope.

The Christian identity of the black self was not important to Malcolm X. For him, Christianity was the White man’s religion and thus had to be rejected. Black people, Malcolm contended, needed a black religion, one that would bestow self-respect upon them for being black. Malcolm was not interested in remaking Christianity into a black religion.

The creators of black theology disagreed with both Martin and Malcolm and insisted on the importance of bringing blackness and Christianity together. The beginning of black theology may be dated with the publication of the "Black Power" statement by black religious leaders in the New York Times, July 31, 1966, a few weeks after the rise of Black Power during the James Meredith march in Mississippi. Soon afterward the National Committee of Negro Churchmen was organized as the organizational embodiment of their religious concerns. It did not take long for the word "Black" to replace the word "Negro," as black ministers struggled with the religious meaning of Martin and Malcolm. Christianity and blackness, non-violence and self-defense, "freedom now" and "by any means necessary."

I sat down to write Black Theology and Black Power in the summer of 1968. Martin and Malcolm challenged me to think deep and long about the meaning of Christianity and blackness. Through them, I found my theological voice to articulate the black rage against racism in the society, the churches, and in theology. It was a liberating experience. I knew that most of my former professors at Garrett and Northwestern would have trouble with what I was saying about liberation and Christianity, blackness and the gospel. One even told me that all I was doing was seeking justification for blacks on the Southside and Westside of Chicago to come to Evanston and kill him. But I could not let irrational white fear distract from the intellectual task of exploring the theological meaning of double-consciousness in black people.

Martin and Malcolm symbolize the tension between the African and American heritage of black people. We are still struggling with the tension, and its resolution is nowhere in sight. We can’t resolve it because the social, political, and economic conditions that created it are still with us today. In fact, these conditions are worse today for the black poor, the one third of us who reside primarily in the urban centers like Chicago and New York.

It is appalling that seminaries and divinity schools continue their business as usual -- analyzing so many interesting and irrelevant things -- but ignoring the people who could help us to understand the meaning of black exploitation and rage in this society. Why are two of the most prophetic critics of the church and society marginal in seminary curriculum? If we incorporated Martin’s and Malcolm’s critique of race and religion into our way of thinking, it would revolutionize our way of doing theology, just as class and gender critiques have done.

But taking race seriously is not a comfortable task for whites or blacks. It is not easy for whites to listen to a radical analysis of race because blackness is truly Other to them -- creating a horrible, unspeakable fear. When whites think of evil, they think of black. That is why the word "black" is still the most potent symbol of evil. If whites want to direct attention from an evil that they themselves have committed, they say a black did it. We are the most potent symbols of crime, welfare dependency, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and bad government. Say a black did it, whites will believe you. Some blacks will too.

With black being such a powerful symbol of evil, white theologians avoid writing and talking black theology. Even though black theologians were among the earliest exponents of liberation theology, we are often excluded when panels and conferences are held on the subject. One could hardly imagine a progressive divinity school without a significant interpreter of feminist and Latin American liberation theology. But the same is not true for black theology. The absence of a serious and sustained engagement of black theology in seminaries and divinity schools is not an accident. It happens because Black is the Other -- strange, evil and terrifying.

But theology can never be true to itself in America without engaging blackness, encountering its complex, multi-layered meaning. Theology, as with American society as a whole, can never be true to itself unless it comes to terms with Martin and Malcolm together. Both spoke two different but complementary truths about blackness which white theologians do not want to hear but must hear if we are to create theologies that are liberating and a society that is humane and just for all of its citizens. Only then can we sing, without hypocrisy, with Martin King, along with Malcolm X, the black spiritual, "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last."



1. Martin Luther King, Jr., "Which Ways Its Soul Shall Go?", address given 2 August 1967, at a voter registration rally, Louisville, Kentucky, in Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers (Atlanta, Georgia: Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change).

2. Malcolm X, "God’s Angry Men," Los Angeles Herald Dispatch, 1 August 1957.

3. That observation was made to me in a private conversation by theologian Langdon Gilkey of the University of Chicago. It is unfortunate that he never made a disciplined theological argument about King’s theological importance in his published writings. If he had done so, perhaps American white theologians would not have ignored the black freedom struggle and would have been less hostile toward the rise of black liberation theology.

4. Malcolm X Speaks. ed. by George Breitman (New York: Grove Press, 1965), pp. 107-108.

5. See Washington Post, 23 January 1994, p. G6.