In a Memorial Day event held in Ohio by veteran’s organization American Legion, retired Army Lt. Col. Barnard Kemter was in the middle of a speech when his microphone was cut off, right after he began talking about Black peoples’ role in the history of the holiday.
Kemter kept going, telling reporters later that it was merely a malfunction. But, as the Akron Beacon Journal found, the event organizers turned off his microphone on purpose during the two minutes that he began discussing the origins of Memorial Day, which some attribute to celebrations organized by freed Black enslaved people in the 1860s.
“Throughout history, there has been a lot of claims about who actually performed the first Memorial Day service,” Kemter told The Washington Post. “With this speech, I chose to educate people as to the origin of Memorial Day and why we were celebrating it.”
“A lot of people viewed this as a healing speech and paying a tribute to the African Americans that started Memorial Day,” he went on.
Event organizers with the American Legion were apparently displeased with this portion of Kemter’s speech. Leaders of the local American Legion chapter asked the audio engineer for the event to turn off his microphone. When the engineer refused, one of the leaders reportedly did it themself.
Kemter soldiered on, speaking louder so that the audience could hear him. He talked about an event in the 1800s where formerly enslaved Black people commemorated Civil War veterans by exhuming the remains of several hundred Union soldiers to give them “a proper burial,” writes the Akron Beacon Journal.
Later, when the portion of the speech about Black people’s role in the history of the holiday was over, the microphone came back on.
“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 [freedom of] speech,” Kemter told the Akron Beacon Journal. He said he was disappointed that the speech was cut off and that it was received well.
The local American Legion chapter president Cindy Suchan said that they had wanted the part of the speech in question to be eliminated, saying it “was not relevant to our program for the day,” because the “theme of the day was honoring Hudson veterans,” according to the Akron Beacon Journal.
Event organizers had told Kemter ahead of the event that they wanted him to “leave out the part of history of it,” even though he says Suchan told him he could write the speech about whatever he wanted, according to The Washington Post. However, the organizers failed to specify which paragraphs exactly, so Kemter left the speech intact.
According to historians, this isn’t the first time that the freed Black enslaved peoples’ story has been left out of history. Evidently, the ceremony in Charleston, South Carolina, is likely the first recorded Memorial Day commemoration. But it is virtually unknown in local and national history.
The Ohio American Legion apologized for the incident after Rep. Casey Weinstein (D-Ohio) called attention to it on Twitter. “We sincerely apologize for any harms caused and will hold those accountable once the facts are investigated,” the organization said.
But the American Legion, the world’s largest veteran’s organization, evidently has a history of racism within its national headquarters in Indianapolis and in some of its local chapters.
As Jasper Craven pointed out for The New Republic, the organization had spurned many World War I veterans of color and still “remains exceedingly white and exclusionary” to the point of hostility for Black veterans. The leadership for the organization is almost entirely white, Craven writes, despite the fact that a growing number of veterans are Black.