Weekend Read: In Mississippi, "The devil means to do us in"

When SPLC founder Morris Dees knocked on the door of the Bethesda Home for Girls in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, he discovered a scene that was nothing like what was advertised.

Girls from the Bethesda home performed in churches on singing tours across the country, giving testimony about the wonderful care they received.

But that testimony was forced, according to one girl, and as SPLC staffer Brad Bennett writes,

Bethesda's veneer of benevolence masked a grim reality: Girls lived virtually as prisoners. They were locked up, cut off from the outside world, paddled until they were bruised or bleeding, forced into highly subservient roles and emotionally abused in many ways. They endured the kind of mind control tactics one expert said were typical of religious cults and Nazi concentration camps.

It was a stroke of luck that enabled one girl, known as "Candy H.," to get word out about what was really going on.

Candy had been placed in the Bethesda Home for Girls at the urging of her mother's minister when she was 19 years old and pregnant. She had a supervised phone call to her twin sister when the staff member overseeing the call stepped out of the room.

"Get me out of here," Candy begged her sister.

Their father, a police officer in Montgomery, Alabama, contacted Dees at the SPLC.

"We found the small, concrete-block house and knocked on the door," Dees told Bennett. "We saw girls in old-fashioned dresses listening to religious tapes. I called our client's name and she quickly came.

"The minister rushed to the door, but we hastily drove her away. On the flight home, she told harrowing stories of mental and physical abuse the girls experienced."

The SPLC sued, prompting the home's director to declare that "[t]he devil means to do us in with all this stuff."

In 1986, a Mississippi judge declared that Bethesda was operating illegally as a detention center. The nearly 120 girls in its custody were sent to parents and guardians.

One of the girls set free in that raid, Trisha, recently wrote a letter to Dees thanking him for the SPLC's intervention.

"You and your decision to help became a light for many of us who had felt we were thrown away," Trisha wrote. "Your help gave lost children a feeling of worth and hope."

Today, too many children in Mississippi and beyond still feel "thrown away." In detention centers, in so-called "conversion therapy" institutions, in jail cells and in crumbling schools, we know that the number of children who need our help is greater than ever.

As we begin a new year, we're grateful to our supporters for giving us the opportunity to help people like Trisha, and we're deeply committed to our work giving vulnerable children across the Deep South the same "feeling of worth and hope."

The Editors

P.S. Here are some other pieces that we think are valuable this week:

'What are we going to do about Tyler?' by Sarah Smith for ProPublica

A teen was caught in immigration limbo. So Des Moines schools' superintendent and his wife sheltered a stranger. by Rekha Basu for Des Moines Register

Walking while trans by Serena Daniari for Mic

Erica Garner died of a heart attack. But it's racism that's killing black women. by Melissa Harris-Perry for Elle