Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis and Bishop William J. Barber II

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis and Bishop William J. Barber II, Poor People’s Campaign co-chairs, pictured in 2018.

(Photo: Flickr/Susan Melkisethian)

Bishop William Barber Battles AMC

The anti-poverty organizer and civil rights leader has brought this chair with him everywhere, from Yale to jail, from Broadway to the Vatican to the White House, without any issues. But at a movie theatre in Greenville, North Carolina there was a problem.

Bishop William Barber is taking a stand, after being denied a place to sit down. It happened on the day after Christmas.

Barber is a renowned civil rights activist, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, a theologian and preacher. He’s a Yale Professor and Founding Director of the Center for Public Theology and Public Policy at Yale Divinity School, and, for almost 30 years, was Pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, NC.

Barber’s 90-year-old mother wanted to spend Christmas with him. They planned to go see the just-released remake of The Color Purple, the 1985 film based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker. They drove to the AMC Theater in Greenville. That’s when his problem began.

In a news conference days later, Barber, whose typically thunderous oratory has been likened to that of Martin Luther King, Jr., choked up as he described what happened:

“We had to come to Greenville because you all know in eastern North Carolina there ain’t a whole lot of theaters, in our small rural towns like Roper, and Piney Woods, and Jamesville and Bertie, and Chocowinity, Plymouth. We went to enjoy the music and the story of that movie of triumph over adversity…the movie was a gift to my mother who came to North Carolina as a federal government administrative professional in the 1960s to help integrate public schools with my father who was asked to come here by EV Wilkins, the former principal of what was then the all black Union School in Roper, North Carolina. Going to this movie this week was supposed to be a gift to me, and a gift to her.”

Barber’s younger brother died of pancreatic cancer several years ago, making him an only son again, so time with his mother was that much more important. Barber described his struggle with his own disability:

“For more than 30 years now, I’ve suffered from a form of arthritis. This is rare, but one of the most dangerous. debilitating forms called ankylosing spondylitis…I’m walking now with two canes, I have to carry a high chair with me everywhere I go… I cannot begin to sit in a low chair nor rise from a low position.”

Managers at the AMC theater in Greenville, North Carolina told Barber that he could not use his special chair in the theater. They called armed security and the police and had Bishop Barber removed.

Barber saw purple – just not The Color Purple.

“I think about all the other people in the world, people who don’t get up and try to enjoy public accommodation, because of their fear. The law says you have to reasonably accommodate. There was no attempt to accommodate, there was an attempt to say no, period, end of story. You’re not coming in,” said Barber on the Democracy Now! news hour. Barber has brought this chair with him everywhere, from Yale to jail, from Broadway to the Vatican to the White House, without any issues.

The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA, bans discrimination against differently-abled people in employment; bans discrimination by state and local government (a similar ban in federal facilities and federally-funded programs preceded the ADA); in public places like movie theaters and restaurants; and requires websites to be accessible.

Yet, more than 33 years after the ADA was passed and signed into law by Republican President George H.W. Bush, differently-abled people still face discrimination and exclusion on a daily basis.

“Of all the things we have to be fighting at this time of war, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, of fight for voting rights, the fight for living wages, the fight for health care, that these two would choose to fight me, to fight somebody who has a visible disability, and saying no to me going in and watching a movie that’s about triumph and family, which is why my mother really wanted to see it on that day.”

It’s ironic that Bishop Barber would suffer discrimination attempting to take his mother, herself a civil rights activist, to see The Color Purple, a story that plumbs the experiences of Black people in the Jim Crow South in the early decades of the 20th century – experiences that shaped Barber and his family.

But Barber is an organizer. Following the incident, Adam Aron, the CEO of AMC Theaters, the world’s largest movie theater chain, flew to Greenville to meet with him. Barber says the conversation has just begun.

“This is about what systemic changes and policy changes to training need to be done to ensure this happens to no one,” the bishop said at his news conference. “AMC should mean this when somebody says ‘AMC’: I know they will Accommodate Me Caringly.”

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