The Knoxville preacher arrived a little past midnight from a revival in South Pittsburg, Tenn., but a security guard at a prominent local hotel apparently thought he looked too much like a drug dealer.
The Rev. Ezra Maize said that's the reason he and his colleague almost were denied access to the hotel rooms they already had paid for at the Chattanooga Marriott at the Convention Center on Feb. 29, 2008.
"The security guard stopped us and told us it was the hotel's policy for guests to show their keys after 11 p.m.," Mr. Maize, the pastor at First AME Zion Church in Knoxville, said Tuesday by telephone. "But they weren't stopping anyone who was white.
"The guy finally told us that there's a lot of drug dealers in the area and that we looked like drug dealers, too," Mr. Maize said.
Mr. Maize and his colleague, James Horton, now are suing Marriott and its contract security firm in Chattanooga, Walden Security, for $1.75 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
No rulings have been issued in the case. The plaintiffs are asking for a jury trial.
The lawsuit, filed in February in federal court in Knoxville, claims that defendants Walden and Marriott "acted in bad faith with a motive to intentionally violate the clearly established Constitutional rights of the Plaintiffs."
"Defendants by and through the acts of their security guard/agent concluded that the Plaintiffs, a pastor and his ministerial assistant, because they were black, looked like drug dealers and as such denied them admission to the hotel under a ruse of a non-existent policy to check patrons (sic) hotel room keys," the lawsuit states.
According to court documents, no policy exists at the Marriott in which guests are required to show keys late at night.
The Marriott's general manager could not be reached Tuesday to answer questions regarding the hotel's current policy when it comes to allowing access to late-arriving guests.
Walden Security's attorney of record did not return a phone message seeking comment.
Despite what he said was an eventual apology and the offer of a free night's stay by the manager on duty, Mr. Maize said there is "no excuse" for the "racial profiling" he experienced.
Court documents indicate Walden already has tried to get the lawsuit dismissed, claiming the federal court district of Eastern Tennessee has no jurisdiction, and the plaintiffs "fail to state a claim on which relief can be granted."
Mr. Maize said it wasn't until the hotel apparently brushed off his suggestions that he perform "diversity" training for its employees that he decided to file the lawsuit. His decision to pursue litigation is not about the money, he claims.
"It's the principle of the matter," Mr. Maize said.