Retired Army Lt. Col. Barnard Kemter was midway through his speech at a Memorial Day ceremony in an Ohio cemetery when he started discussing the role that freed Black enslaved people played in an early event honoring Civil War dead.
“I assumed it was a technical glitch,” Kemter, who carried on with his speech off-mic while he waited for the audio to return, told The Washington Post.
But the disruption was no glitch. One of the event’s organizers later admitted the audio had been deliberately turned down, telling the Akron Beacon Journal that Kemter’s discussion of Black history “was not relevant to our program for the day.”
“We asked him to modify his speech, and he chose not to do that,” Cindy Suchan, president of the Hudson American Legion Auxiliary, told the Beacon Journal.
Now the Ohio American Legion is investigating the incident, and Kemter has accused the organizers of “censoring” him.
“I was very disappointed that someone would choose to censor my speech,” Kemter told The Post.
The Hudson, Ohio, native, who was trained as a combat medic and served in the Army from 1965 through 1995, was invited by Suchan as the keynote speaker for the ceremony in his hometown.
Suchan did not give him any writing prompts, he said, and did not say any topics were off-limits. So, the veteran decided to use this year’s speech as an “educational” opportunity to discuss the holiday’s history.
“Throughout history, there has been a lot of claims about who actually performed the first Memorial Day service,” Kemter told The Post. “With this speech, I chose to educate people as to the origin of Memorial Day and why we were celebrating it.”
Kemter’s speech included details about a Memorial Day commemoration in Charleston, S.C., organized by a group of Black people freed from enslavement less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865.
About three days before his speech, he emailed the text to event organizers. One organizer responded by asking Kemter to revise his speech and “leave out the part of history of it.” The organizer, whom Kemter declined to name, didn’t specify which paragraphs they wanted gone or why they objected, he said.
So, after consulting with a Hudson public official, Kemter arrived at Markillie Cemetery on Monday ready to deliver the unedited version of his final draft to the crowd of about 300 people.
Kemter began his speech by discussing how Memorial Day was born after hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died in the American Civil War were in need of a proper burial place. Then, shortly after beginning a discussion of the role that Black Charleston residents played in the holiday, his microphone stopped working.
When his calls for help from a sound engineer didn’t work, he said, “I decided, ‘I don’t need a microphone.’ I just proceeded in my Army command voice.”
Kemter did not think much of it when the audio came back minutes later, just after he had finished discussing the holiday’s Black history.
But after the event, the audio engineer approached to tell him that it was not a malfunction: The event organizers had intentionally muted him, he said.
By then, Kemter said he was surrounded by about 20 people, who congratulated him for a “moving” and “meaningful” speech. He gave out the four printed copies he had brought to the event, he said.
Kemter said he didn’t want a confrontation with organizers, so he left the cemetery without speaking to them.
On Wednesday, Suchan confirmed to the Beacon Journal that either she or Jim Garrison, the adjutant of American Legion Lee-Bishop Post 464, had turned down the audio because the “theme of the day was honoring Hudson veterans.” She declined to confirm who specifically had turned down the volume.
Garrison also refused to say whether he turned down the microphone, telling the Beacon Journal that he had “nothing to add.” He declined to comment when reached by The Post.
Suchan confirmed that event organizers had asked Kemter to revise his speech and said that the two minutes when Kemter’s mic was turned off included some of the paragraphs organizers had objected to.
The Ohio American Legion said it is investigating the incident.
“We take this matter and its allegations seriously. We will investigate and take disciplinary action if necessary,” tweeted the group.
The American Legion condemned the incident, adding that it was aware of the investigation carried out by the Ohio American Legion.
“Regardless of the investigation’s outcome, the national headquarters is very clear that The American Legion deplores racism and reveres the Constitution,” National Commander James W. Oxford told The Post in a statement. “We salute LTC Kemter’s service and his moving remarks about the history of Memorial Day and the important role played by Black Americans in honoring our fallen heroes. We regret any actions taken that detracts from this important message.”
Kemter said that despite the microphone issue, he’s received dozens of messages praising his speech.
“A lot of people viewed this as a healing speech and paying a tribute to the African Americans that started Memorial Day,” Kemter told The Post."