Charleston Mayor Joe Riley condemns alleged racial discrimination at downtown hotel

Joe No


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When I first read today's Post and Courier report that the Courtyard Marriott in downtown Charleston asked an AME church leader to vacate his room at night after several days of staying there, I was baffled. For me, the claim by AME Rev. Richard Franklin Norris just didn't ring entirely true — and this is coming from a guy who sees racist conspiracies everywhere.

Even though Charleston is in the heart of the old Confederacy, I have a difficult time believing that someone at a major hotel in the Holy City would force a guest out of the room he or she had been staying in for days so that someone of another race could move into it — and for that reason alone. It just doesn't make any sense.

The P&C's Dave Munday reports:

The bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina — the state’s biggest African American denomination — says he was told he had to vacate his room at a downtown hotel late Tuesday night because it had been promised to somebody else.

A staff member of the Courtyard Marriott met the Rt. Rev. Richard Franklin Norris in the lobby shortly before 10 p.m., called him by name and told him he and his wife had to move to another room, he said. Norris, 71, had already been in the room several days and said he had it reserved through Saturday. When he told the staff member it was too late to be moving at night, he found his key no longer worked on the door, he said.

“I expected it (bad treatment in Charleston) in 1960; I did not expect it in 2013,” Norris told about 500 pastors and delegates meeting at the historic Emanuel AME Church Wednesday.

According to the article, no racial slurs were reportedly uttered by Marriott's staff and no discriminatory remarks were allegedly made. Norris, who was in town for an AME conference, doesn't even claim that he was forced out of his room so that a white guest could move in. So for all we know, that guest could have been Ru Paul's body-double stunt tucker. Honestly, the way it appears now, the only racist thing that happened here was that Norris was asked to move to another room — and that's not racist in the slightest.

Not surprisingly, Norris didn't react too well when his claim was questioned. Munday writes:

The manager, Beryl Rice, said Norris’ account is wrong.

“That’s not what happened,” Rice said Wednesday. “We wouldn’t ask anyone to leave his room in the middle of the night.”

Asked about what actually happened, Rice refused to offer details, saying only that the bishop’s account is not accurate.

The bishop was incensed when he heard Rice’s reaction.

“He’s basically calling me a liar,” Norris told the conference around 6 p.m., when he was scheduled to meet with Rice. “Let somebody else meet with him. I don’t ever want to talk to him.”

Now, this story may have remained a he-said, she-said case, a heavily trafficked tale at the AME conference and nowhere else. In fact, it may have disappeared entirely. That's possible, even though I doubt Norris was going to let this slight pass. However, none of that mattered once Charleston Mayor Joe Riley decided to insert himself into the story. Only then did Norris' claim make the P&C's pages. And in case you're wondering, this story will go national.

Oddly enough — and this is particularly shocking given that Mayor Riley has been a particularly savvy mayor over the course of his four decades in office — it seems as if the 70-year-old mayor failed to speak with the Courtyard Marriott staff before publicly labeling the hotel a hate group at the AME conference on Wednesday, when he spoke alongside Norris. Munday writes:

The incident upset Charleston Mayor Joe Riley enough that he personally appeared at the conference at which Norris was presiding Wednesday afternoon to apologize.

“I hope something like this never happens again,” Riley said after welcoming the delegates to Charleston as mayor of the nation’s friendliest city. He promised to talk to the hotel’s manager to get to the bottom of it.

Yikes, Joe. Don't you think it would have been smart to speak with the manager before condemning the hotel. After all, we know very little about what happened. Marriott isn't talking for legal reasons, Norris' details are skimpy at best, and the P&C seems about as sure as to what happened as Edward Furlong, Lief Garrett, and Nick Stahl are after a junkrow swap meet.

When it's all said and done, there's probably a lot more to this story than what the Rev. Norris told Riley, Munday, and the men and women at the AME conference. I've watched enough episodes of The Real World and The Real Housewives of Orange County to know that this probably wasn't the first time that a simple screw up or miscommunication was taken as a malicious slight and then stoked into a four-alarm how-dare-they fire. Only time will tell though. 

But as of right now, the only sure thing is that Joe Riley should have stayed out of this matter entirely, even though the Rev. Norris was threatening to move the AME conference out of Charleston next year. It's clear that his pathological need to protect the Charleston brand and whore out our town for tourist dollars got the better of him — and it may have caused significant harm to the Holy City. Well done, Joe. 

Note: I've spoken a member of the Marriott Corporate communications staff and they say that Norris's story, as portrayed in the P&C, is inaccurate. They also say that their guest privacy policy prevents them from discussing the matter any further and Marriott as a company does not discriminate. 

UPDATE (09/27, 11:08 a.m.): Courtyard by Marriott general manager Beryl Rice sent in this statement last night: 

This situation is the unfortunate result of a miscommunication between the hotel and the local organization that booked the room on the guest’s behalf. We have met with the meeting planner and have expressed our apologies for the miscommunication and the inconvenience that resulted. Our hotel staff worked diligently to resolve any issues that resulted from the miscommunication, including providing alternative rooms, and we regret that we were unable to fully satisfy the guest with our efforts. This hotel and Marriott have a zero tolerance policy regarding any form of discrimination. 

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