The Rev. William Barber, the head of the North Carolina NAACP and a leader in the state’s Moral Mondays movement, says he was kicked off an American Airlines flight earlier this year because he is black.
He filed suit against the company on Wednesday in Alexandria, Va., federal court, demanding unspecified monetary damages as well as changes at the airline. According to the minister, he was harassed by fellow passengers and a flight attendant before being removed from his flight, which was departing Reagan National Airport, for no reason.
“To be born two days after the March on Washington and still have to deal with this kind of racism and discrimination, it’s troubling,” Barber said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.
Barber, the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., has for the past several years helped lead Moral Mondays protests against Republican leadership in his state. He gained new prominence after his passionate speech on the final night of the Democratic National Convention in July.
American Airlines spokesman Matt Miller said in a statement that the airline would not discuss Barber’s account because it involves litigation. But he said the airline “does not tolerate discrimination of any kind and we are committed to providing a positive travel experience for all of our customers.”
The alleged incident occurred April 15, when Barber was flying to Raleigh from a conference in the District. He was exhausted, he recalled, but had decided not to spend the night in the District because he had so much work to do at home.
“All I wanted to do was sleep. All I wanted to do was get on that plane, lay my head against the seat,” he said Wednesday.
But according to the lawsuit, Barber was seated in front of a pair of loud and unruly white men who appeared to be intoxicated. A flight attendant only reluctantly responded to his request that they be asked to keep their voices down, Barber alleges, and singled him out as the complaining passenger. The two men, he said, then became even more belligerent, cursing at Barber. One allegedly told the other that “he did not like ‘those people,’ and that ‘those people’ made him sick.”
“That kind of language, if you know where it comes from, it concerns me,” Barber said.
Meanwhile, an off-duty pilot boarded the plane. According to Barber’s suit, the same flight attendant — a white woman — directed the pilot to sit next to the pastor. Because he has an advanced form of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis, Barber explained that he bought two seats on the plane so he could use one to rest his leg. The pilot found another seat, but an American Airlines agent approached Barber and demanded that he produce the two boarding passes he had purchased, the suit says.
After that interaction, the lawsuit alleges, the two men behind Barber began mocking him more viciously, with one passenger saying Barber was “so big that he could not fit in one seat.” Barber said he stood, turned around, and asked that man to stop talking about him and keep his voice down. The man allegedly responded with more verbal abuse, saying he wanted Barber to hear him. The minister said he would pray for his fellow passenger and got back in his seat, the suit says.
The same flight attendant came over and threatened to call the police, according to the lawsuit. Barber said the situation was under control. About 10 minutes later, he said, an officer came on the plane and asked the man behind him what had happened. Barber was ordered off the plane, where he was told that American Airlines had demanded his removal.
“This differential treatment was based on race, as other passengers noted and stated to American Airlines employees,” the lawsuit says. “Reverend Barber was calm, complied with all directives from the flight crew, and did nothing that remotely warranted being ejected from the airplane.”
A black airline employee at the gate, according to the lawsuit, told Barber that “this tends to happen a lot” and that she was “sick of American Airlines doing this.” Barber was re-booked on a flight to North Carolina the following morning but was not given a hotel room or any other compensation.
He also alleges that his cane was taken away when he got off the plane, forcing him to walk in pain to the gate.
Barber says he was further humiliated by news stories about the incident. American Airlines, he said, falsely claimed that the flight had to turn around midair and that he had grabbed the flight attendant. The North Carolina Republican Party issued a statement blaming Barber for delaying the flight.
“I didn’t have an opportunity to say what really happened,” Barber said.
In an anonymous interview with a North Carolina news station, a person who said he was one of the two white passengers acknowledged that he was “definitely out of line” but said that Barber was as well. When he talked about “those people,” the passenger said, he meant not African Americans but “those types of people who would call someone over and say something to the stewardess.”
Barber and his attorneys said they brought the suit in hopes of preventing such incidents in the future.
“Sometimes you just get tired,” Barber said. “It’s been a major battle this year, fighting against all this oppression.”
The suit was brought by Michael G. Allen, John P. Relman and Jia M. Cobb of the D.C. firm Relman, Dane & Colfax.