ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) — The president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP sued American Airlines in federal court Wednesday, claiming it removed him from a flight because he is black.
The Rev. William Barber II says it happened on April 15 after he boarded a flight home to North Carolina. He had just given a keynote address at an ecumenical conference in Washington, D.C.
Barber says that as is his custom, he bought two tickets to accommodate disabilities that make it necessary to extend his legs across the empty seat. He suffers from an advanced form of arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, which prevents him from rotating his neck or bending his left leg.
After taking his seat, he says, two white men behind him began to talk loudly and appeared drunk. He says he asked the men if they could keep their voices down but due to his disability, he was unable to turn around or rotate his neck to make the request. When they continued to talk loudly, Barber rang for a flight attendant.
The attendant, a white woman, was “dismissive” and used a “flippant tone” and told him that “she could not prevent other passengers from talking,” Barber says in the complaint.
He says he told the flight attendant he merely wanted her to ask the men to refrain from speaking so loudly. She did so, and identified him as the source of the complaint. This threw them into a “belligerent fit” and they cursed and insulted him, Barber says.
“The passenger exclaimed to the person who was sitting next to him that he did not like ‘those people’ and that ‘those people’ made him sick,” the complaint states.
The situation escalated when an off-duty American Airlines piloted boarded the plane and asked the same flight attendant where he could sit. The attendant directed him to Barber’s second seat.
Barber says he explained to the pilot why he had the vacant seat. An American Airlines agent then boarded the plane and requested both of his boarding passes. The white men then ramped up their insults, commenting upon his weight and saying he was “so big that he could not fit into one seat,” according to the complaint.
After standing to address one of the men, Barber said, he finally decided that anything he said “would only agitate him further.” He offered to pray for the man, which brought another fit of outrage, but the flight attendant managed to calm things down.
Then the police arrived. They did not interview Barber, but asked for an account from the men behind him.
“When Reverend Barber asked for the opportunity to speak, the officer told (him) to stand and ordered him toward the jet bridge,” Barber says in the complaint. They told him that American Airlines had ordered him ejected.
Barber says that as he waited at the jet bridge the police took his cane and he watched as a white passenger boarded the plane to take his seat.
When he went to book another ticket, Barber says, a black airline employee quietly told him, “this tends to happen a lot,” and that she was “sick of American Airlines doing this.”
He also claims that American Airlines made “false reports” to the media, saying the plane had taken off and had to turn around to remove him, subjecting him to “humiliation and embarrassment.”
Barber, a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, spoke during a prime-time slot at this year’s Democratic National Convention, moments before Hillary Clinton accepted the nomination.
He seeks an injunction and damages for discrimination.
He is represented by Michael Allen with Relman, Dane & Colfax in Washington, D.C.
American Airlines did not return a phone call requesting comment.