Superman: Civil Rites

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#3 - "Born Again"

By David Marshall


Clark waited until his parents were fast asleep and slipped out of bed. One advantage of being the son of farmers was they kept farmer’s hours – in bed at sunset and up at the crack of dawn. Their schedule was crucial to Clark’s plan.

He worked the previous two nights on a costume made from the swaddling blankets from his rocket ship. It was good practice with his heat vision since an earthly needle couldn’t pierce the alien fabric. Perhaps the costume would draw attention away from his face so people wouldn’t see him. Removing his glasses helped as well.

But it was Clark’s hope that the costume would do more than simply conceal his identity. His love of literature left him acutely aware of the power of symbolism. Just as the Ku Klux Klan employed their robes and hoods to instill fear, Clark hoped his costume would inspire hope.

Clark held up the completed suit and admired his handiwork. He was no tailor but it wasn’t bad craftsmanship. Perhaps the flowing red cape was a bit much but it was too cool to not wear. Besides, the JSA guys with the capes were always his favorites.

It scared his mother half to death whenever Clark flew but there were times the power came in handy and sneaking out of the house was certainly one of those occasions. The boards in the old farmhouse creaked so loudly it was impossible not to hear them whenever someone walked upon them. In the stillness of the night they could easily awaken his folks. Clark floated a few inches off the floor and walked upon the air to his open window. Careful not to touch the frame, he eased out into the night.

The first thing he did was to shoot straight up into the clouds – up, up, and away like a bird or a plane or… Clark whisked his right hand through the wispy vapors, playing with them like a child with clay. Even with his mighty powers he was unable to corral the misty mountains of fog. The rush of it all was intoxicating, even more so without his folks warning him to be careful or not go too high. He wished he had more time to play, away from the cares of the world, but there was work to be done. He plummeted through the clouds and back to the farm.

Some curious cows ran to the fence to meet him. Clark tried to quiet them but his presence unnerved them more. He had to leave before they awakened his folks!

Once again, Clark rose into the air but settled into a flight path above the treetops. He patrolled the farms south of town first then worked up the nerve to pass over downtown Smallville, albeit at a slightly higher altitude. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was looking for but was itching to flex his muscles. The night was still so he headed north of downtown into the countryside where the white folks lived.

Three miles outside of town, he spotted a group of sheets gathered on Old Man Mathis’s grazing land. Old Man Mathis seemed like a nice man. Clark hoped he was unaware of the Klan’s presence on his land, but knew deep down that wasn’t the case. He took refuge behind the canopy of a nearby Beech tree and watched the scene below with macabre interest.

The hooded men stood in perfect rows and columns in two ranks to the left and right of a hay wagon. A lone man wearing red robes and a matching hood was perched on the empty wagon. His arms were outstretched like Moses parting the Red Sea. “My true brothers! This night we birth new brethren into our family through the right hand of fellowship! These esteemed men of our great community have amply demonstrated their love of our great southern homeland and rich heritage! Their ancestry is true! They stand against the scourge of oppression and those who seek to destroy our way of life! Tonight we celebrate the bond of brotherhood and the richness of our traditions as we welcome them into our family! What say ye, my fellow knights? Shall we accept them as loyal kinsmen?”

With a united voice, the gathered Klansmen roared their approval.

The man in red signaled to three hooded figures. They quickly hoisted a massive wooden cross into place and doused its base with gasoline. They set it ablaze and the Klan celebrated with raised fists and loud, triumphant yells.

Once the roar subsided, the Klansmen gathered into two circles. The outer circle marched clockwise around the inner circle which marched counterclockwise to their counterparts. The outer circle stood eight abreast while the inner marched four wide. The man in red led them through an elaborate call and response session as they marched. With a gesture from the man in red, the festivities ground to a solemn halt.

The man in red stepped down from the wagon. A lackey Clark guessed was a sergeant-at-arms presented three hoodless and shirtless initiates to the leader before rejoining his brethren. The initiates dropped to one knee while a color guard presented the Confederate flag, the Mississippi state flag, and a Klan flag of some sort.

The man in the red touched the first man on the shoulder and fired a pistol into the air. He did this with each initiate until all were received. His task complete, he backed away from the kneeling initiates. “To be of us and not with us is treason, and the reward of treason is death! Every Southern belongs to us, by birth, by education, by the love of liberty inhaled with the balmy breezes of the sunny South, by the hatred of the northern clans imbibed with his mother's milk, by the inherent detestation of hypocrisy and the myriad social and political abominations of the North! You are of us, you must be with us! The reward of treason is death! You are prepared to take the oath?"

The men answered in unison. “Aye, I am.”

The man in red continued. “By all the loved memories of my native land, by all the hallowed associations of home and family, by the memory of friends and brothers slain, by the lurid flames of war and desolation spread over our happy homes by the Lincoln hordes, I swear that by daylight and darkness, at all times and on all occasions, the steel shall pay the debt of steel, the lead shall recompense for lead, the Southern Cross shall yet defy the world!”

The men repeated the oath.

“Welcome new brothers to the Southern Cross,” the man in red announced. He repeated the same pistol ceremony he performed earlier and launched into a second oath. "By southern homes despoiled and broken, by southern women outraged, by the lingering torments of northern prisons, by all the desolation brought on our people by famine, pestilence and sword, I swear that desolation shall answer desolation, pestilence shall pay for pestilence, until the Southern Crescent span the continent and carry over the North the furies that have desolated the South!”

The new initiates parroted the new oath.

“Welcome new brothers to the Southern Crescent!” beamed the man in red. He fired his gun into the air and presented a third declaration. "By all that is sacred, I swear to remember Jackson, and Johnston, and the thousands dead; the humiliation of Davis, and Lee, and Bragg, and Beauregard; the noble deeds of Southerns on many a gory field; and by the memory of all these, I swear to be true to the Lone Star of the South till these and all our woes are a thousand times avenged!”

The men repeated the new oath and the man in red fired his gun again and addressed the kneeling men. “Welcome new brothers to the Lone Star of the South!”

The man in red put away his pistol then raised his arms high and bestowed upon his new brothers the following adjuration. "Let the heavens be lit with the lurid flames of worse than fratricidal war! Let the dagger, the bullet, the flames and the pestilence, smite every vulnerable point! Let the desolation of death reign in the Northern homes enriched by plunder of the South! Let the audacious minions of the tyrants in our country be met in silence and darkness, struck down by a power they see not! Remember the oath! The Crescent is broad enough to include all the enemies of the South! The Lone Star shines brightest in the darkness! The Dagger is the emblem of the silent work! Remember the oath! Bring the consecrating bowl."

A hooded figure stepped forward and presented to the initiates a bowl fashioned from a human skull. It was filled with blood. Clark hoped it was animal blood and not human. The men drank from the cup and stood with blood still running down their faces and onto their bare chests. They faced their senior brethren and raised their fists into the air to celebrate their pact with the devil. Their brothers roared their approval in return.

The man in red lifted his arms once more and hushed the nearly-rabid crowd. “Brothers of the Southern Cross, we must now carry out the less pleasant of our duties this night! Bring forth the betrayer!”

The Klansmen parted and a white horse emerged from the woods, its hooded rider seated tall in the saddle, proud of his role in the ritual. He drug behind him a badly beaten man and deposited him before the man in red. Two other men untied the victim and forced him to his knees.

Clark didn’t recognize the man.

“Sir, you have betrayed your own species!” yelled the man in red robes. “What have you to say for yourself?”

“I did nothing wrong,” the stranger whispered in a faint voice.

“Liar!” shouted the man in red. He kicked the bound man in the gut.

The man lunged forward and plopped face first into the sunbaked field. He vomited blood and rolled into the fetal position. “Please don’t do this. I have a family.”

“It’s proper etiquette in these parts to wait for an invitation to a man’s home, Lincoln-spawn,” hissed the man in red.

“You took my camera and my film! Isn’t that enough?” the stranger pleaded as he struggled to his knees. His accent was assuredly not local, more northeastern.

Clark’s heart was heavy at the events unfolding before him. He’d never considered Klan retribution against the white man who refused to sell them his soul. What had the man done to earn such hatred? It didn’t matter. If he was an enemy of the Klan then he was Clark’s ally. At least Clark hoped so.

A lackey grabbed the stranger’s hair. “Why were you taking pictures at the Luthor mansion earlier today?”

The Luthor mansion? Clark’s ears perked up.

“What the hell is wrong with you people?” the stranger coughed.

Another hooded figure backhanded the stranger across the face. “Listen to that accent boys! Bet he’s a Jew too!”

The stranger coughed up more blood, taking care to spit it on his attacker’s loafers. “You may beat me down. Hell, you may even kill me in this backwoods, redneck hellhole, but rest assured the world will know what’s happening down here and …”

The Klan descended upon the man like rabid animals. One goon left the beating and went to his truck. He returned with another rope and tied it into a noose. The others drug the beaten man to the nearest tall tree.

Clark had seen enough. He landed behind the fray and cleared his throat. “I didn’t realize laundry could take itself for a walk to dry.”

The unexpected outburst caught the Klan by surprise. They slung the white man to the ground and turned their attention to Clark.

“Well, well! What do what have here boys?” cooed the Klansman with the noose in his hand. “We got ourselves an uppity mud baby. You steal those fancy pajamas from your mama’s closet, boy?”

Clark shook his head and smiled. “No sir. Your momma gave them to me.”

It didn’t take x-ray vision to see the anger boil over in the man’s eyes through the slits in his hood. “Get him boys! No darkie talks about my momma that way!”

The Klansmen attacked Clark with a fury reserved solely for his people. But unlike the stranger, Clark was invulnerable to their blows.

“Son of a… what’s this boy made of? Steel?” cried the man whose mother Clark insulted moments earlier as he dropped to his knees and nursed his right arm. He paid dearly for landing the first blow. “According to my x-ray vision your fingers are crushed and your ulna is broken,” Clark taunted. “You’ll want a doctor to set them as soon as possible.”

“Don’t you get smart with us boy!” cried the man in red robes. “I don’t know how you hurt our good brother but you can bet you won’t leave this field to brag about it!” Clark grabbed the man’s arm and ripped his red hood from his head. His was a familiar face around town. He worked at the grain factory. Clark remembered someone saying he was a supervisor but wasn’t sure. “

A furious Clark shook the hood in the man’s face. “Tell me, does the hood hide your shame when you close your eyes at night?”

Fear spread across the man’s face as Clark tightened his grip.

“We sleep just fine, boy” crowed a Klansman wielding a pistol. He pointed it at Clark. “Way I see it, this .45 covers a lot of shame. Release our brother!”

“Don’t kill him,” the forgotten stranger pleaded. “He’s just a boy!”

“A very stupid boy that won’t live to be a man,” the gunman answered. He pulled the trigger and an explosion split the night air.

Clark released the man in red and watched the bullet speed toward him in slow motion. He marveled at what a physicist would label obturation, the swelling at the base of the bullet as it sped toward him. The force exerted against the bullet caused the swelling to travel from the base to the nose like a wave on the ocean. The bullet’s nose glowed red as it cut through the night air.

Clark considered his options. He could super-cool the bullet with freeze-breath and let it fall to the ground and shatter like an icicle falling from the eaves of a house. A second option was to catch the bullet in his bare hands. He also entertained the idea of swatting it away like a mosquito, but in the end those options weren’t as dramatic as allowing it to explode against his chest.

The bullet found its mark and the fiery blast lit up the “S” on Clark’s chest. The spent ammunition bounced off as if the shooter threw a rubber ball.

“What are you trying to do?” Clark laughed. “Tickle me to death?”

“What kind of devil are you?” gasped the wide-eyed gunman.

Clark smiled. “I’m no devil, sir. I’m the voice of justice. Now go! Leave this man alone and warn your “brothers” that your rampage of terror is over!”

The hooded knights looked to the man in red for direction. He bolted for his truck and they followed suit.

A moment later, Clark and the stranger were alone in the quiet field. The bloodied stranger tried to stand but fell. Clark slung the red hood to the ground and offered him a hand. “Should I get you to a doctor, sir?”

The man shook his head then took Clark’s hand and stood. “I saw the bullet hit your chest, son. How did you…”

“Let’s just say I’m not from around these parts,” Clark replied with a grin. “I’ve not seen you around Smallville before.”

The man nodded. “I’m from up north, Metropolis.”

“It’s dangerous down here, mister….” Clark replied, fishing for a name.

The man extended his hand to Clark. “White. Perry White. I appreciate your concern but it’ll take more than a few bullies in bed sheets to keep me from my story.”

Clark shook Perry’s hand. “You’re a reporter?”

Perry White nodded. “Daily Planet.”

Clark was impressed. Even in backwoods Mississippi, he’d heard of the Daily Planet. They were the top newspaper in the country. It was said that the Daily Planet building was built with Pulitzer Prizes rather than steel beams and concrete.

“Why would the Daily Planet send a reporter all the way down here?” Clark asked.

Perry smiled. “You ask a lot of questions, son. You’d make a fine reporter.” Clark shook his head. “If a black man noses around in other people’s business down here we all suffer in return.” As soon as the words slipped out of his mouth he realized he insulted Perry’s profession. “I’m sorry, Mr. White. I didn’t…”

Perry laughed heartily then coughed. “No need to apologize, son. If it weren’t for you, I’d be swinging from a tree right about now.” “You said something about a story?” Clark asked. “Here in Smallville? Why would the folks in Metropolis care what happens down here?”

Perry sighed. “Because there are still good people in this world too, son. The story was supposed to be little more than a fluff piece about the economic impact of the proposed chemical plant on your local economy, a way to promote Saint Luthor as a champion for the poor. One day the arrogant SOB will learn you can’t buy a good name.”

“And you crossed the Klan when you discovered his dirty little secret about the land deal?” Clark asked.

Perry’s head cocked to the right. “What land deal, son?”

Clark was taught to never say too much about the white folks in the area, particularly when it involved the Luthors, but Perry White seemed different - trustworthy. “Luthor doesn’t own the land he’s selling.”

Perry’s swollen eyes lit up. “You don’t say?”

“It belongs to the Jacobs family,” Clark replied. “They refused to leave and Luthor’s men burned them out. Mr. Jacobs and his boy were killed in the fire.”

“That’s a hefty accusation son,” Perry answered.

“But true,” Clark replied. “Look… Forget I said anything. Just do your piece.”

Perry put his arm around Clark. “Son, you just saved my life. Your word is good enough for me. Nothing would make me happier than to pin something on old man Luthor! Maybe this old bulldog can finally move out of the bullpen!”

“Bulldog?” Clark asked.

“That what the Chief calls us cub reporters at the Planet,” Perry explained. “He nicknamed us bulldogs and told us it took that kind of tenacity to move up. Guess he hopes the Pulitzer envy will take care of the rest.”

“It sounds like this… Chief person can be a very difficult man,” said Clark.

Perry laughed. “You don’t know the half of it son. Taylor’s a real pain in the ass, but we get back at him by calling him Chief. He hates it.”

“Can I give you a lift?” Clark asked.

Perry looked around. “Sure, but I don’t see your car.”

Clark wrapped his arms around Perry’s waist. “Who needs a car when you can fly first-class like a star reporter? I’d hold on tight if I were you.”

The pair raised into the air.

“What the bloody hell?” Perry gasped as he watched the world grow smaller beneath him. He clung tightly to Clark’s arms. “Great Caesar’s ghost! Are we… flying? This is impossible!”

“We did establish that I’m not from around here,” Clark grinned. “Where are you staying, Mr. White?”

“I’m at the Highway 49 Motor Lodge,” Perry answered. “Forget Luthor. You’re the real story here! A flying boy taking on the Klan singlehandedly? Bullets bouncing off your chest? Pulitzer, here I come!”

“Please don’t,” Clark replied. “At least for now. A story like that would draw outsiders from all over the country and the Klan would punish us for it. No offense Mr. White, but it would only add to an already volatile mix.”

“Goodbye, Pulitzer,” Perry sighed.

“I’m sorry,” said Clark. “But when I’m ready to say hello to the world, I promise you’ll get the scoop.”

“Sounds like a fair bargain,” Perry replied. “Then you have my word, Mr….”

Clark froze. He never thought of what to say if someone asked who he was. “I’m just a kid with super-powers.”

A regular super boy, huh?” Perry asked.

“I guess you could say that,” Clark replied.

Minutes later, Clark sat Perry down in front of the Motor Lodge and took to the sky once more. The rest of the night was uneventful. The highlight was rounding up Old Man Harrison’s escaped bull, Buster, and mending the broken section of fence through which the bovine escaped. Clark wished he could see Mr. Harrison’s face when he discovered the patched section. The thought made him laugh out loud as he headed home.

The Luthor Mansion, The Same Night

“Do you expect me to believe such balderdash?” Lionel Luthor screamed. He slammed his fist against his oversized Mahogany desk. “I donate good money to your organization and I expect a return on my sizable investment not fairy tales and excuses!”

Lucas Donovan hung his head. “I don’t know what to say, Mr. Luthor.”

“For starters you can explain to me why you ran like a cowardly worm” Luthor shouted. “I bet you were quite a sight fleeing through the woods in your red bed sheets!”

Donovan eyed his companions and wondered which one ratted him out.

“I’ll tell you why you ran,” Luthor continued. “You ran because you were frightened by a child. A boy you claim can fly and bullets bounce off his chest. Is that correct, Donovan?”

The lump in Donovan’s throat was suffocating. “You don’t understand Mr. Luthor. He was some kind of demon or…”

“How much whiskey was involved?” Luthor demanded.

“Sir?” Donovan asked.

Luthor swiped a bottle of whiskey from his desk and threw it against the wall. “Whiskey, dammit! How much? And don’t lie to me. You reek of it!”

“With all due respect sir,” Donovan stammered, “We usually have a drink to take the edge off before we start a job.”

Luthor grabbed Donovan by the throat and drew close enough that Donovan could smell his fiery breath. “I’m not sure how you conduct business at the grain factory Mr. Donovan, but when I require your services I expect you to stay sober enough to complete the assignment! No more fairy tales about Super Negroes! Do I make myself clear?”

Donovan nodded dumbly. If he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes he wouldn’t believe it himself. “What do we do now, sir?”

Lionel Luthor rubbed his chin thoughtfully and spoke through pursed lips. “We pretend it never happened.”

“Sir?” Donovan asked.

“I said we pretend it never happened!” Luthor shouted. “If we tear this county apart looking for this so-called demon we’ll give the apes something to rally around. Keep quiet and he loses that power.”

“What about the reporter?” Donovan asked. “What will keep him from plastering our disgrace on the front page of every newspaper in the country?”

Luthor threw his head back and laughed heartily.

“Sir?” Donovan asked. “I made a funny?”

“It’s called credibility, gentlemen,” Luthor explained. “Our friend would be the laughing stock of his profession if he goes to press with a tale like the one you’ve told me.”

The Highway 49 Motor Lodge, Smallville, Mississippi

Perry White paced as far around the small, crowded motel room as the telephone cord would allow. The phone was plastered to his ear and he could barely get in a word edgewise.

“Why are you still there, White?” screamed the voice on the other end of the phone. “I thought you’d be half way to Metropolis by now.”

“There’s more of a story here than we realized, Chief,” Perry replied.

“Don’t call me Chief!” Taylor barked.

“Yes sir, Mr. Taylor sir,” said Perry.

“Look White, circulation’s been down lately. You know how it is,” Mr. Taylor explained. “The Planet can’t afford to foot the bill for a road trip so you can chase some hair-brained hunch!”

“I tell you I’m on to something big!” Perry shot back.

“This had better be good,” Taylor warned.

Perry knew the real story could launch his career in a big way. After all, it was potentially the story of the century – a flying boy with powers far beyond those of mortal men takes on the KKK in rural Mississippi. But a promise was a promise and the secondary story the young man told him was Pulitzer-worthy on its own. “The land deal’s bad. The locals say Luthorcorp doesn’t own the land it sold to the chemical company. And there’s more. I believe Luthor is covering up a murder that occurred at his home.”

“Go on,” said Taylor.

Great Caesar’s Ghost! Was Taylor deaf? “I… really that’s all I have right now. If you give me a week I’m sure I can…”

“You have three days and then you’re on your own!” Taylor huffed.

“But, sir!!” Perry complained. “I can’t go to press without the facts to back up my story!”

“Then it sounds like you’d better get busy,” said Taylor. “Good night, Mr. White!”

Perry was flabbergasted the Chief was even aware of a small fry like him. George Taylor was a hard-nosed boss but fair. He was a dying breed – a newspaper man who worked in the business because it was his love and passion, not because he didn’t know what else to do with his English degree. Taylor didn’t even have a degree. He worked his way up from selling papers on the street corners of Metropolis as a boy – the same as Perry. Despite his boss’s gruff demeanor, Perry felt a kinship with him. He was the kind of editor Perry wanted to be one day if he ever made it out of the bullpen.

Perry wanted to wow Mr. Taylor with a major story and he knew it was there for the taking. He just needed some proof the land didn’t belong to Luthorcorp, but there was little time to perform a proper deed search. It would take a team of attorneys months to pour over the records at the county courthouse and he didn’t have a spare nickel for even one baby shark.

But he knew someone who might….

The Kent Farm, Before Dawn

Clark performed a quick once-over of his family’s property. His biggest fear was something would happen to his folks when he wasn’t around to protect them. Thankfully the search yielded only a couple of field mice and a grumpy possum.

The window was open like Clark left it. He wasn’t sure what he would do once cold weather blew in, but he would cross that bridge later. He levitated through the opening without touching the squeaky frame.

“A little late to be dragging in isn’t it?” whispered his mother’s voice.

“Ma?” asked a startled Clark.

“Where have you been?” his mother asked. “And why are you dressed that way?”

“I’ve been… out,” Clark replied.

Clark’s mother stepped into the dim moonlight. “I hope you’re not doing what I think you’re doing”

“I had to do something,” Clark explained. “I saved a man’s life tonight, Ma! The Klan would have killed him if not for me. How can that be a bad thing?”

“For every one you save, they’ll ruin two more or worse,” his mother answered. “You know how the Klan works. How long have you been flying around in your pajamas anyway?”

Clark shuffled his foot nervously. “Tonight was my first time.”

“Are you telling me the truth?” Ma Kent asked.

“Yes ma’am,” Clark nodded. “I promise.”

Clark’s father referred to the look on his mother’s face simply as “the look” and joked that it was like a stake through the heart of a Kent man.

“Tell me about the man you saved tonight,” said his mother.

“He was a white man,” Clark replied. “A reporter from Metropolis.”

Clark’s mother shook her head. “I don’t like it. Clark you shouldn’t be mixed up in this mess. It’s dangerous.”

After all the things Clark had seen no one had to warn him twice about the danger. “I know Ma but if I hadn’t been there that man would be dead right now.”

“What’s a reporter from Metropolis doing all the way down here anyway?” his mother asked.

“Luthorcorp is a Metropolis company. He was sent to report on the groundbreaking ceremony for the chemical plant,” Clark explained.

“Let me guess, he discovered more than Luthor and the Klan wanted him to know,” said Mrs. Kent.

Clark nodded. “I saw some awful thing tonight, Ma.” He sat on the bed and removed his bright red boots. “How can people be so cruel?”

Clark’s mother sat beside him and hugged him. “You know it’s not the bullets and violence I worry about, don’t you? It’s this… seeing you lose your innocence. You’re still a boy.”

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things,” Clark answered.

“I Corinthians 13:11,” his mother replied. “One my favorites - until this morning.”

“I’m sorry,” Clark apologized. “I didn’t mean to spoil…”

“It’s okay, son,” Clark’s mother replied. “It’s hard for a mother to let her baby go even if he does have super powers.”

The unmistakable sound of Clark’s father stirring interrupted the heart to heart.

“Are you going to tell Pa?” Clark asked.

Clark’s mother sighed. “I hate keeping things from Jonathan.”

“But you know how he’ll react,” Clark pleaded.

Clark was relieved to see a wry smile spread across his mother’s lips. “I suppose he’ll find out on his own soon enough anyway. It will be our secret…for now.”

Clark kissed his mother on the cheek. “Thanks, Ma. I’m going to catch forty winks.”

She kissed him back. “Sleep well, my angel.”

Author’s Note – The Klan oaths and rituals presented in the story were taken directly from an 1868 expose of the Klan entitled, “The Oaths, Signs, Ceremonies and Objects of the Ku-Klux Klan: A Full Expose,” credited only to “a late member”. It is a historical work in the public domain. In no way do I represent those rituals as my original thoughts. They were included to add authenticity to the story. Later versions of the Klan usurped the imagery of D.W. Griffith’s controversial silent motion picture, “The Birth of a Nation” and reworked their message to appeal to the anti-Catholic sentiment up north in an effort to boost national membership. Southern sects often stayed with the more traditional oaths, particularly in the Deep South.

David

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