Black Theology Project:Organizational Gift, Intellectual Apparatus—Legacies of Dr. James Cone
This article offers a brief review of Dr. James H. Cone's involvement with the organizational beginnings and function of the Black Theology Project. The discussion centers on the Project because Cone's writings and participation helped inspire U.S. African descendant clergy, laypeople, academics, activists, and theologians to work collectively in BTP efforts. BTP was also an influential and international touchstone for other groups of African descendants seeking to articulate liberation theology as developed within the historical realities of their existence. The article reviews the origins of BTP and some of what it accomplished during its fifteen-year tenure, drawing on archival materials held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York City Public Library. In addition, I was an active member of BTP and served as a past executive director.
Black Theology Project, Theology in the Americas, U.S. civil rights movement, Black denominations, Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, Cuban Christians, Indian Dalits
The Black Theology Project (BTP) was an ecumenical Christian group of U.S. African descendant clergy, laypeople, academics, and theologians devoted to the discovery, development, and promotion of historic and contemporary Black [End Page 273] religious thought and action. It was an organizational manifestation of the global irruption of Black liberation ideas that were interjected into theological arenas. The Project was a "church-centered and self-conscious" comprehension that the theology itself was derived from common experiences that led to a mandated commitment in support of Black liberation. The Black Theology Project began with an affirmation of Black theology's transnational dynamics, emphasizing people of Africa, South America, and the Caribbean, with a companion affirmation to engage with other communities of color and with poor and oppressed people worldwide.1
The Rev. Dr. James H. Cone was one of several distinguished African descendant Christians who worked to organize BTP: Rev. Charles Spivey, Rev. Gayraud Wilmore, M. Shawn Copeland, O.P., Rev. Muhammad Kenyatta, and Rev. Vaughn Eason were but a few. The Project emerged from one of six groups gathered in 1974 by Father Sergio Torres, the South American Catholic priest. He arrived in the United States to summon a multiracial coalition of Catholics and Protestants to form action/reflection groups. The several groups were to explore the meaning of liberation theology for particular circumstances in North America. The Theology in the Americas (TIA) enterprise came into existence from these activities and functioned under the umbrella agency of the National Council of Churches.
The Black Theology Project was officially organized in 1975 as part of TIA but conceived in response to ideas articulated in James Cone's numerous writings on Black theology. As professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, he had been thinking and writing about global revelations concerning African descendants' religious ideas and practices. His reasoning was on the forefront of a developing shift from Euro-centered religious thinking to Africa-centered epistemological ideas. His writing and the organization of BTP were more immediately lodged in protest confrontations around 1950s and 1960s issues of human civil rights by U.S. African Americans. Cone's 1969 publication of Black Theology and Black Power demanded African descendants' religious experiences be incorporated into the academic and theological canon. The volume also declared social protest and Black Power as legitimate theological content.
The appearance of Black theology in the United States was contextually grounded in African descendants' centuries-long struggles for human rights in their own country, that is, their rights as citizens. Protest activities of the 1950s [End Page 274] were a significant twentieth-century turning point in social movements, and the post–Civil War, 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson was a central antecedent to those mid-century activities. That decision brought major objections and protests from the National Association of Colored Women and others. Nevertheless, the Plessy decision became "law of the land" and legally and visibly continued the structural oppression of African descendants as second-class citizens. Across the United States, government agencies strengthened formal and informal regulations that reinforced race-based economic, political, educational, and other social segregation that brought racialized status to other nonwhites: Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, and indigenous Native Americans, as well as nonwhite immigrants.
Long before the media focused on Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., social disobedience and protests against legalized racial segregation and for citizenship rights were a theological issue. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century engagement of the "social gospel" had seen U.S. Black congregations assisting those in the Great Migration to adapt to life in urban, predominantly white cities. Often the assistance required public, social protest activities.2 During the 1950s, when U.S. media began publishing reports of Blacks' disobedience and protesting against racial segregation, especially in the South, the activities were interpreted through liberation understandings of Black theology.
As the civil rights movement was brought further to the national forefront, Rev. King proposed that African American denominations, like the National Baptist Convention (NBC), add their presence to public advocacy for Black citizens' civil and human rights. Activist organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Council, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Urban League, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, and many others publicly joined the protest and helped extend the actions into a social movement. Black denominations, on the other hand, were not visibly aligned with such activities.
At the same time, many African American denominations were brewing with discomfort and discontent about the relative absence of church leaders and organizations in public civil rights actions. Some Black clergy had been visible in the efforts but, overall, denominational commitment was minimal. When the Black Panther Party, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Deacons for Defense, and other social activist groups began a powerful national call for "Black Power," many denominational leaders were unwilling to support or be associated with what they deemed "radical" activities.3
In November 1961, an invitation was sent to member congregations of two Black Baptist conventions, and some thirty-three delegates from fourteen [End Page 275] states met at Zion Baptist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. The event resulted in the formation of the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC), which became the alternative denominational home for Martin Luther King and other Baptist leaders in the civil rights movement. A centerpiece of PNBC's witness was "social justice and liberation as a mandate of Christian Gospel." More than a few PNBC clergy and lay congregational members became involved in discussions of theological underpinnings to the social activism for Black civil rights.4
A sizable number of PNBC members also participated in Black Theology Project activities, as did Project members from the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the United Church of Christ, the Roman Catholic tradition, congregations aligned with the National Baptist and American Baptist Conventions, the Church of God in Christ, and congregations of the United Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopal Churches. This broad spectrum of African descendant church-based Christians allowed BTP to function with a national and international outreach agenda.
Black Theology Project in Action
In 1976, the first BTP Convocation, with the theme "Black Theology and National Priorities," was held in Atlanta, Georgia. More than two hundred people took part in the workshops and dialogues and called for a second gathering in 1977. The theme of the second convocation was "National and International Priorities," and with its advocacy and education about Black theology, BTP was moving beyond U.S. borders and was linking with people and communities in other countries. Project members understood that liberation dynamics of Black theology were transnationally connected to an unapologetic affirmation of Black identities and Black cultures. They also recognized that global formations of anticolonialism were manifested in an international consciousness and similarly linked to Black theology.5
Several BTP members, including James Cone, had already seen the global influence of U.S. Black theology and had been working on an international thrust for Theology in the Americas. Cone was pivotal in formulating TIA's international reflection groups, which became the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT). His ideas, along with those of U.S. theologian Cornel West, were central to EATWOT's formation and reiterated connections between U.S. Black theology and the formation of anticolonialism ideas throughout the globe. The global network of African descendant religious and theological scholars incorporated a decolonizing trajectory to their work that proved central to their organization's success. Papers by Cone and West on the subject were widely distributed, and copies remain in the Schomburg [End Page 276] Collection. The anticolonialism ideas also became important elements in BTP's international work.
The Black Theology Project included a board of directors, an executive committee, a chairperson, an executive director, plus regional chapters and commissions. The latter units worked on the interface of Black theology and local social justice issues across the United States, including in California, Michigan, Georgia, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, and New Jersey. Although BTP joined EATWOT in initiating transnational dialogues, the U.S. Project's international dialogue for justice functioned apart from many of those Christian communities.
BTP delegates joined with Afro-Brazilian Christians in dialogues about race in their country, participated in publicly calling for the World Council of Churches to eradicate racism within its organization, partnered with KAIROS USA in exchanges with representatives of the African National Congress of South Africa, and published a full-page protest in the New York Times admonishing the U.S. government for its invasion of Granada. At the same time, much of BTP's work was characterized by "invited participation in theological conversations." The Christian Marxist Dialogues with Cuban Protestants is a strong example.
In 1984, BTP received an invitation from La Coodinación Obrero Estudiantil Bautista de Cuba (the Coordination of Baptist Student Workers of Cuba, COEBAC). The invitation was to participate in an event, "Martin Luther King Jr. Jornada Teológica," to be held in Havana in honor of the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Some fifteen BTP delegates attended (see figure 1). Dr. James Cone is on the right, in a blue plaid shirt and white linen pants. The gentleman in the center, in glasses and a green Guayabera shirt, is Rev. Raúl Suárez, a COEBAC leader who helped organize the dialogue event.6
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This was the first in a series of conversations between Christians of Cuba, African American Christians of the United States, and Christians from other Caribbean nations. The events continued through 1990, and BTP delegates from different congregations and regions attended each encounter. The overall theme of the conversations was "Social Responsibilities of Christians in Capitalist and Socialist Societies." Cubans organized the series as part of their successful effort to establish the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Center in Marianao (a district outside of Havana but within the municipality). COEBAC felt dialogues with BTP could help them better understand Martin King as a man, a Christian, a minister, and an activist.7
In 1984, Rev. Jesse Jackson was running for the U.S. presidency. His office contacted BTP requesting that he be included in the delegation. We agreed, and he and Rev. Ms. Willie T. Barrow, an activist and union organizer from Chicago, participated in the event. Some other BTP members attending the inaugural Cuban dialogue were Rev. Tyrone Pitts of PNBC, Dr. Robert Franklin of COGIC, Rev. Carolyn Knight, Rev. Mark Ridley-Thomas, Rev. Dr. William Watley of the AME Church, Ms. Esmeralda Brown of the United Methodist Church, Rev. Gayraud Wilmore of the Presbyterian Church, Ms. Thelma C. Davidson Adair, Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Chicago, and others seen in figure 1. Rev. Jackson's presence created an air of diplomacy, and the delegation was invited to join in several receptions and conversations with Cuban national leaders.
It must be noted that BTP also received Cuban delegations to the United States. Among these were pastors from the island nation whose visit included living and worshipping with BTP congregations. Similarly, in 1988, BTP hosted a musical delegation of young Christians, thirty years of age and under. In return, we sent two U.S. musical delegations to Cuba to share theological understandings and performances of Black sacred music.8
The Black Theology Project was contacted by and also had dialogues with Indian Christian Dalits of South Asia. The delegation arrived in New York in 1986 and was received by BTP members for discussions on social, religious, and political realities of Blacks in the United States and in India. The Indian Dalits are Black, some are of African descent, and they are members of India's "lower-caste untouchables." They had been exceptionally impressed and influenced by Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, Black theology, and James Cone. The Dalits delegation found the dialogue with BTP members moving, and their correspondence with the Project expressed extreme gratitude for U.S. African Americans' leadership in opening international conversations on Black theology. [End Page 278]
For Project members, it was a real-life manifestation of Black theology's contribution to supporting international anticolonialism activities and a manifestation and organizational testimony to Black theology ideas James Cone and others had articulated. More important, we heard how those ideas aided international Black scholars' intellectual apparatus to progress toward self-determination and anticolonialism. Exchanges with Dalits, Cubans, and others in their particular liberation struggles affirmed Black theology's global impact. We saw how the reality of U.S. Black theology influenced an international evolution and practice of liberation theology and contributed to the articulation and sharing of perspectives toward that goal. No one in BTP questioned the global rise of modern liberation theology, specifically Black theology, but our practice of dialogues with specific communities helped us realize the intimate link between Black theology, collective identity, and liberation, as well as its connection to anticolonialism consciousness and action.9
Some Difficulties and Tensions
No organization exists without difficulties, problems, and tensions, and the Black Theology Project was no exception. In the context of financing from capitalist United States, the organization was always in difficulty. The Project never had sufficient independent funding for basic administration or program implementation. Convocations were successful but were never ample to fund the Project's general operations or programs. This meant that BTP's work depended on effective use of outside grants, funding from the National Council of Churches, several denominational contributions, donations from BTP members, and a few foundation awards. However, BTP was mostly able to accomplish program activities through voluntary work of the Project's administrative staff, many of whom were aligned with salaried positions in organizations related to religious endeavors. Black Theology Project volunteers could use employers' time and resources to help accomplish Project work, an age-old strategy for nonprofit groups.
Resources and assistance from local church congregations and other associated groups were indispensable for carrying out BTP convocations, dialogues, and other collective gatherings. Much of the travel expenses also were provided by affiliated relationships. Units of the National Council of Churches often supported travel for BTP delegates attending national and international theological events. The same was true of denominational relations, as the Progressive National Baptist Convention was instrumental in a BTP [End Page 279] delegation of pastors traveling to preach and dialogue with congregations in Havana, Cuba.
At the same time, there were some tensions between BTP and Theology in the Americas. Indeed, the two organizations spent some four years discussing and negotiating, but in March 1983 BTP and TIA successfully realigned their overlapping interests and goals. By 1985, BTP incorporated as an independent association and continued its national and international program related to TIA.10
The Black Theology Project began in response to the call for conversations on liberation theology for North American circumstances. James Cone's Black theology ideas were just such a liberation theology, and he and others gathered to create an organizational arm for community-based discussions of the topic. Cone's ideas, writings, and presence brought forth the Black Theology Project as a component of the National Council of Churches' Theology in the Americas. BTP successfully operationalized a distinct and specified agenda that incorporated local congregational goals and objectives as well as national and international considerations.
With much input and involvement from James Cone, BTP extended its theological relevance beyond U.S. boundaries and formed relationships with global communities to conduct dialogues regarding alternative theological paradigms grounded in their historical experiences. Other articles in this issue clarify details of Cone's vision for Black theology, but his importance in helping to form organizational arrangements and strengthening their functioning clarifies how the vision was implemented beyond theologians and the academy.
1. This article has drawn on and synthesized from archival materials in the Black Theology Project Collection at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, New York. Although there are four boxes in this collection and numerous folders containing even more numerous papers, the professional processing of the collection continues. There is no topical, chronological, sequential, or numerical order to the materials, and folder labels are not indicative of their content. A methodical probing of the documents can be fruitful, however, and everything stated in this article can be identified in materials of the collection.
2. See Annetta L. Gomez-Jefferson, The Sage of Tawawa: Reverdy Cassius Ransom, 1861–1959 (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2002).
3. See the interview with Manning Marable in "The Role of the African American Church in the Civil Rights Movement," NBC Learn, February 4, 2008, https://archives.nbclearn.com/portal/site/k-12/browse/?cuecard=5041. Also see Meg Anderson, "National Baptist Convention (1895–)," Black Past, March 29, 2009, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/national-baptist-convention-usa-inc-1895/.
5. Black Theology Project Collection, box 1.
6. See correspondence from Rev. Raúl Suárez in the Black Theology Project Collection, box 3.
7. Although documents in the Schomburg's Black Theology Project Collection have yet to be fully processed so that researchers can better understand all activities of the Cuban dialogues, I have firsthand knowledge of the events because I organized each of the BTP Cuban dialogues.
8. Black Theology Project Collection, folders in box 4.
9. See correspondence from "Dalits" in the Black Theology Project Collection, box 3.
10. Father Sergio Torres, the organizer of TIA, sent an indicting letter to BTP, and Rev. Gayraud Wilmore responded in kind. Difficulties were resolved and the official relation was reinstated.