Earlier this week, the bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina had a little trouble with his accommodations in the Holy City.
It seems there was some miscommunication between the downtown Courtyard Marriott, the bishop and the organizers of the conference he was attending.
The Rt. Rev. Richard Franklin Norris says he was asked to change rooms in the hotel mid-stay. He decided to change hotels instead.
Norris’ perception was that he had been slighted, that race played a factor. And he chose to share this feeling with his congregants — and the media.
“I expected it in 1960; I did not expect it in 2013,” Norris said Wednesday night at the Emanuel AME Church.
Those are loaded words anywhere, but especially in Charleston. And it took what is a fairly common occurrence — hotel reservation foul-ups — to an entirely different level.
Because you see, in Charleston, race is a very sensitive issue.
Mayor Joe Riley rushed to the AME conference as soon as he heard what happened.
He understood the implications. Riley has worked hard to make sure this city honors, and learns from, its history — all of its history.
The mayor knows all too well that perception is reality. And he wanted to assure Norris and his congregants that this is not the way Charleston treats its guests.
“The fact is the head of the AME church in South Carolina was asked to give up his room,” Riley says. “It’s a huge concern. Anything that could appear to be a slight to anyone, certainly the leader of a prominent African-American institution — in this case, a church — is of great concern.”
This is why Riley is mayor. He loves Charleston, but he’s not wearing blinders.
Charleston was built on slave labor. It was the point of entry into this country for many Africans centuries ago. These folks were brought here against their will to do the work of others.
That changed after the war, but equality was a battle that would continue for more than a century.
Many would argue we’re still fighting it.
Norris is old enough to remember segregated schools, segregated lunch counters, and the days when he could not just check into any hotel he wanted.
Yes, things have changed for the better. And Marriott is an international corporation, not a rice plantation.
“Marriott has a zero-tolerance policy with regard to discrimination in any form,” a company spokesman said Thursday night.
The hotel says the bishop was not discriminated against. All signs here point to a misunderstanding. But Norris’ perception is his reality, born from decades of experience.
You have to forgive him if he cannot forget the past.
South Carolina has enough problems with race.
The state is still under a boycott from the NAACP because the Confederate battle flag flies on Statehouse grounds. Even though the flag was moved from a position of sovereignty in the spirit of compromise, some people still perceive a slight.
It’s that perception thing again.
Dot Scott, president of the Charleston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, calls this an unfortunate situation. It’s the kind of thing that has a way of reinforcing negative perceptions of a state suffering with charges of racial profiling and discrimination. And these things have a way of going viral.
She’s not saying Norris was discriminated against — she doesn’t have all the facts — but the point is that such slights should be avoided at all costs.
“South Carolina doesn’t need this kind of stuff,” Scott says.
She is absolutely right.
Riley and others have done a good job dragging this city into the 21st century, acknowledging our less than flattering past while doing their best to rectify it.
We should remember our history, and do everything we can to distance ourselves from its uglier attributes — so no one gets any other perception.
Because that’s not who we are anymore.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org
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