(AP) – A civil rights leader was escorted by police out of a North Carolina movie theater after he insisted on using his own chair for medical reasons, prompting an apology from the nation’s largest movie theater chain.
The incident occurred Tuesday in Greenville during a showing of “The Color Purple.” The Rev. William Barber II said he needs the chair because he suffers from ankylosing spondylitis, a disabling bone disease.
Barber, 60, leads a nonprofit called Repairers of the Breach, which focuses on issues including voter suppression and poverty. He also co-chairs the national Poor People’s Campaign, which is modeled after an initiative launched in 1968 by the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
During an hourlong news conference on Friday, Barber spoke in support of people with disabilities and the need for businesses to provide the accommodations required under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“I know that if I cannot sit in my chair in a theater in Greenville, North Carolina …. that there are thousands of other people who will be excluded from public spaces in this nation,” Barber said.
Barber said managers at the AMC theater asked an armed security guard and local police officers to remove him after he stood firm on using the chair. Barber said he agreed to be escorted out after officers said they’d have to close down the theater and arrest him.
Barber said he left his 90-year-old mother behind with an assistant to watch the film. Video of the incident shows Barber talking to an officer before walking out of the theater.
“This is not about me personally,” he said. “Though it happened to me personally, this is about what systemic changes, policy changes (and) training needs to be done to ensure this happens to no one.”
Greenville police said in a statement that a caller from the theater said a customer was arguing with employees and the theater wanted him removed. After a brief conversation with a responding police officer, “Barber agreed to leave the theater voluntarily,” police said. No charges were filed.
AMC apologized in a written statement, saying it welcomes and works hard to accommodate guests with disabilities, WRAL reported.
“We are also reviewing our policies with our theater teams to help ensure situations like this do not occur again,” the statement said.
Barber said he’ll meet next week with the chairman of AMC Entertainment Holdings, Adam Aron, after Aron reached out to him. Barber said he is “hopeful it will lead to just and good things for those with disabilities.”
Barber previously served as president of the North Carolina NAACP, leading protests over voter access at the Statehouse that got him and more than 1,000 people arrested for civil disobedience. He stepped down from that role in 2017.
Barber is now a professor at Yale Divinity School. He said Friday that he tells his students they must care about people.
“There’s no way to follow Jesus without learning to pay attention to whoever is broken and vulnerable in society,” Barber said. “Because that’s where God shows up.”