Censorship on Memorial Day

On May 31 Barnard Kemter, a 77-year-old retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, was delivering the keynote speech for a Memorial Day event at Markillie Cemetery in Hudson, Ohio, when his microphone went dead. After a moment’s pause he continued, using the loud voice he had in the past employed for addressing assembled troops, until the sound system started working again.

Immediately afterward, the event’s audio engineer, A.J. Stokes, came over to tell Kemter what happened: One of the event organizers from the local America. Legion post had ordered Stokes to turn off the amplifier during that part of the speech, and when Stokes refused, the organizer so himself. Barney Kemter did not want to disrupt a Memorial Day observance, so he said nothing to event organizers at the time. But local news media covering the event reported what had happened. (See for example here.) The event was also televised on a local community channel. Lieutenant Colonel Kemter’s speech begins about 46 minutes into the video below.

The Ohio Department of the American Legion immediately investigated and just four days later released a statement (PDF) reading in part: “We discovered that the censoring that occurred at the Memorial Day Ceremony in Hudson, Ohio, sponsored by Hudson American Legion Post 464, was pre-meditated and planned by Jim Garrison and Cindy Suchan.” Garrison was the adjutant of Post 464 and apparently the person who turned off Kemter’s microphone, and Suchan, president of the post auxiliary, was in charge of organizing the Memorial Day event.

As a courtesy Kemter had given Suchan an advance copy of the speech, and in response she asked him to omit the part that referenced Memorial Day’s origins. It was a brief but key part of the speech, so after considering the matter and discussing it with a city official, Kemter concluded that leaving it out would require a substantial rewrite that he didn’t have time to do, so he decided to deliver the speech as written.

In response Suchan and Garrison apparently decided to turn down the amplifier during the roughly two minutes of the eleven-minute speech containing the part they objected to.

In it, Kemter described what was likely the first observance of what later became Decoration Day and then Memorial Day. It took place in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1865. Some 240 United States servicemen who died there as prisoners of war had been dumped into a mass grave. Shortly after Lee’s surrender to Grant, volunteers in the city (which had itself surrendered to Union forces in February) exhumed the bodies, washed and dressed them, and reburied them in newly dug individual graves with honor and respect.

Then on May 1, a day of remembrance was held, during which the graves were decorated with flowers brought in armfuls by a procession of children singing “John Brown’s Body.” According to contemporary accounts, as many as 10,000 persons, including 3,000 children, took part in the observance.

What apparently made this objectionable to Garrison and Suchan was Kemter’s mentioning that all this was inaugurated and carried out by former slaves, including formerly enslaved children.

The Ohio branch of the American Legion deemed the censorship of Kemter’s speech to be inconsistent with the organization’s principles, including a 1923 resolution (PDF) reaffirmed in 1977 and 2017, against discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or class. The state organization demanded and received Jim Garrison’s resignation as an officer of post in question and as a member of The American Legion and took steps to close that American Legion post entirely. A few days later Cindy Suchan resigned as well. The mayor and city council of Hudson issued a statement against the attempted censorship.

Lieutenant Colonel Kemter has been asked to deliver his address again, this time without interruption, at an event for young people later in June. The full text of the speech is also prominently displayed on The American Legion’s website.

A web search for “Kemter memorial day speech” will turn up a good deal more about the incident.

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Censorship on Memorial Day — 1 Comment

  1. This looks like tons of work and time! Hope you are doing well, missed the new house warming. Wink!

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