American Legion officials cut a veteran’s microphone at a Memorial Day ceremony on Monday, when he began speaking about how the holiday was first marked by a group of freed black slaves.
The ceremony organizers turned off the microphone for about two minutes in the middle of Lt. Col. Barnard Kemter’s 11-minute speech, just as he was starting to talk about how the holiday was born out of a ceremony in which freed slaves honored deceased soldiers at the end of the Civil War.
He explained: ‘Memorial day was first commemorated by an organized group of freed black slaves less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered.’
But moments later the sound was cut, leaving Kemter looking confused and tapping the microphone, before continuing with his speech without amplification.
Cindy Suchan with the Hudson American Legion Lee-Bishop Post 464 in Ohio told the Akron Beacon Journal that organizers wanted the part of the speech excluded because it was ‘not relevant to our program for the day’ and added, the ‘theme of the day was honoring Hudson veterans.’
Suchan had told Kemter to edit his speech the day before the ceremony, but the veteran continued with it anyway saying he didn’t have time to rewrite it.
The microphone was cut off from Lt. Col. Barnard Kemter’s keynote address at a Memorial Day ceremony in Hudson, Ohio as he was starting to talk about the slave origins of the holiday
Kemter said he wanted to use his speech to detail the history of the origins of Memorial Day, which, he recounted in his speech, began when emancipated slaves gave fallen Union prisoners a proper burial.
Many of them died in the Battle of Fort Wagner on Morris Island, a battle many black soldiers fought in.
The freed slaves reportedly exhumed the mass grave and reinterred 200 Union soldier bodies in a new cemetery with a tall whitewashed fence inscribed with the words: ‘Martyrs of the Race Course,’ referring to the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club in Charleston, South Carolina, where they were buried.
Then on May 1, 1865, reports show, a crowd of 10,000 people, mostly freed slaves and some white missionaries decided to parade around the race track, with little black schoolchildren carrying flowers and singing a Union marching song.
At the end of his speech, Kemter said, he received ‘numerous compliments from attendees who told him ‘it was nice to hear the history.’
The clubhouse at the Charleston racetrack where the 1865 Memorial Day events took place.
‘It was well-received,’ Kemter said in the Akron Beacon Journal article, adding a lot of people told him they never knew about the slave origins of the holiday.
‘I find it interesting that [the American Legion] would take it upon themselves to censor my speech and deny me my First Amendment right to speech,’ Kemter said. ‘This is not the same country I fought for.’
Officials with the American Legion said they ‘asked him to modify his speech, and he chose not to do that’ before the Memorial Day ceremony.
Suchan, who chairs the Memorial Day parade committee and is president of the Hudson American Legion Auxiliary, said the two minutes where Kemter’s microphone was turned off were part of what she asked him to exclude.
Kemter confirmed he was emailed by an event organizer, whom he did not name, asking him to remove part of his speech detailing how black Americans helped found Memorial Day, and proceeded to ask the organizers to specify which portions they wanted to have excluded.
The organizer emailed him back, he said, telling him that all the parts that are highlighted should be removed, but he said he did not see anything highlighted, and with less than 24 hours to the ceremony, ‘I didn’t have time to sit down and write another speech.’
The Battle of Fort Wagner on Morris Island was the Union attack on July 18, 1863, led by the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. The infantry was one of the first major American military units made up of Black soldiers
He said he showed the text to a Hudson public official, who told him to keep the speech intact.
Then on the day of the ceremony, Suchan said she asked the audio engineer, AJ Stokes, to turn off Kemter’s microphone.
Stokes said he refused to do it himself, but pointed to the knob that controlled the microphone, saying it was Jim Garrison, adjutant of American Legion Lee-Bishop Post 464, who turned off the microphone and turned it back on.
When asked about the claims, Garrison declined to say whether he turned off the microphone and said he had ‘nothing to add’ about the situation.
Stokes said Suchan and Garrison were both ‘very adamant’ about turning off the microphone, but he was ‘very upset’ about what happened and feared he would be blamed, even though Suchan said Stokes was ‘totally blameless.’
Kemter, meanwhile, thought there was a problem with the audio equipment, he said, but Stokes told him the truth about the incident afterwards.
In a video of the ceremony, the crowd tries to tell Kemter they can’t hear him when the audio goes off, at which point, Kemter looks off-screen and says, ‘AJ, mic,’ apparently talking to Stokes.
Kemter then smiled at the crowd and joked that this is why he told the crowd to move closer at the beginning of his keynote address.
He continues to speak, and after about two minutes, the microphone comes back on, and stays on for the rest of his speech.