The Devil in the Days of Segregation

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
A patron going in colored entrance of the Crescent Theatre in Belzoni, Mississippi, in 1939 (Wikimedia)

In this latest note for our religion series, a reader who grew up in the American South during segregation recounts two evil forces in his childhood, one real and one imagined: Satan and institutionalized racism. Confronted with both, the reader’s biggest religious choice was to leave behind the dogma of his family and “rely on my own intellect in dealing with people”:

When I was a child, my mother often referred to the Devil in some form or the other to threaten or keep the children in check, especially if we had been bad or were somewhat hesitant about getting ready for church on Sundays. So we would merrily go off to church each and every Sunday in an attempt to keep a step or two ahead of that ole wicked and evil Devil.

In a child’s mind, as much play as this devil entity received, he had to be some real mean and powerful dude. If one wasn’t careful, this Devil dude would enter your mind and body and take full control of you. You would not even be able to recognize yourself or your family. He would make you do evil thing to others.

I was told that the only power that could protect from the Devil was God. That just blew my mind.

I would often ask my mother if she loved her children. Of course she said yes. I would then ask if she’d stand by and allow a force or some power to do harm to her children, especially if she had the power to control everything. She said no.

I then said, “You tell me that God loves all his children and yet, if I go uptown and drink from the whites-only water fountain, I would be beaten like an unwanted animal or maybe even killed.” I would ask, why must I who is black and one of God’s children be allowed to suffer so much and can’t even do all the things that he allows his white children to do?

She would say “Son, we really don’t know why God allows certain things to happen, because he works in very mysterious ways.” I would then say “Mom, that is my point; we really don’t fully understand or know how God works and if we fail to understand him in any one area, we may just be misunderstanding him in all other areas.” I told her that most things just didn’t make sense to me, especially when dealing with God and religion.

At that point, she may have thought I was the Devil.

In my mind’s eye, the Devil was this dude who stood more than 10 feet tall and wore the brightest red jumpsuit. He had two long horns that protruded out the top of his head. His body was always aglow in fire. He stood at Hell’s gate with a long pitchfork flaming with fire in his hand. To keep Hell’s fires hot and burning, he would from time to time go to the basement and retrieve another sinner and place him/her over the fire—you know, in the same manner one would place a chicken over a rotary fire. All day and night, the sinner can be heard screaming out and begging and pleading for water to quench the thirst.

While a child, and even sometimes today, I would have nightmares about this Devil. Our true inability to clearly discern what will happen to us after we die leaves us vulnerable to all sorts of unscrupulous people with the sole intent of taking advantage of the weak and confused. Some folks will have you to believe you can buy your way into Heaven.

It is said that God made everything and everything he made is good. Yet, I am suppose to hate the Devil. Please don’t tell me that the Devil decided he wanted to rule God. Remember, God made the Devil and he must have known what he created, especially since he made everything. Then again, if God made the Devil and said the Devil was flawed, what does that say about the creator?

I am told that unless we are born again, we will not enter into the kingdom. What about those who can’t read and understand the Word? Will we be so-called judged on a sliding scale based on one’s intellect or the lack thereof?

I just try to treat people the way I would like to be treated. I don’t want to hear anything about your religion. If it works for you, fine.     

But I have come to the conclusion that man has no knowledge of any of the unknown in life. It is all based on guesswork from the folks in control and the masses should just follow them because they are the rich and powerful. Not me. If I go to Hell or wherever, it will be on my own terms.