Rudy Lombard, a former New Orleans civil rights activist and one-time mayoral candidate whose conviction for a sit-in at a Canal Street store was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, died Saturday of complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 75.
Lombard had spent the past 20 years or so in Evanston, Illinois, where he worked as a research scientist for NorthShore University HealthSystem, focusing on prostate cancer, which he was diagnosed with a decade ago.
He returned to New Orleans around Thanksgiving and began hospice care, said his brother, Edwin Lombard, a judge on the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal.
Rudy Lombard, who would later earn a doctorate in urban planning from Syracuse University, became involved with the civil rights movement while a business student at Xavier University in the late 1950s.
He was arrested his senior year during a sit-in at the McCrory’s dime store on Canal Street on Sept. 17, 1960, which was organized by the local chapter of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality.
Lombard, who was the senior class president at Xavier and a national vice president of CORE, was joined at the whites-only lunch counter by Lanny Goldfinch, a white Tulane University student, plus Cecil Carter Jr. and the late Oretha Castle Haley, both of whom were black.
The group, known as the “CORE Four,” refused orders to leave and were arrested.
The Supreme Court, which reviewed the case even though New Orleans had no official segregation ordinances for stores, tossed out their criminal mischief arrests in 1963 in the case of Lombard v. Louisiana.
Days before the arrests, Mayor Chep Morrison had made a pro-segregation statement that banned such protests.
“I have today directed the superintendent of police that no additional sit-in demonstrations ... will be permitted ... regardless of the avowed purpose or intent of the participants,” Morrison said in a statement released Sept. 13, 1960, following a similar sit-in at a nearby Woolworth store. “It is my determination that the community interest, the public safety and the economic welfare of this city require that such demonstrations cease and that henceforth they be prohibited by the police department.”
“These convictions, commanded as they were by the voice of the state directing segregated service at the restaurant, cannot stand,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in the court’s decision.
Rudy Lombard did not often speak about his actions against segregation in the ’50s and ’60s and would regularly decline invitations to speak publicly about that era, Edwin Lombard said.
“They (civil rights activists) didn’t want any limelight, any credit,” he said. “They just kind of kept it low-key.”
But what they did was historic, he added.
“I think it was very important,” Edwin Lombard said. “It played a part in turning the country around.”
Rudy Lombard was born in Algiers in 1939, the oldest of three boys.
Edwin Lombard said he’s not sure there was one event in his brother’s life that sparked an interest in civil rights.
Instead, he said, Rudy Lombard simply realized that how things were at the time was far from ideal.
“I just think those kids at that time were very mindful of what was going on,” Edwin Lombard said.
Later, as a businessman, Rudy Lombard announced his candidacy for mayor in November 1985 after successfully challenging Mayor Ernest ‘Dutch’ Morial’s bid to change the City Charter so Morial could serve a third term.
He ran a distant fourth in a primary field that also included lawyer Sam LeBlanc, state Sen. William Jefferson and City Councilman Sidney Barthelemy, who would go on to win the first of his two terms as the city’s top elected official.
In addition to his political passion, Lombard also had a love of cooking, his brother said.
In 1978, he and the late Nathaniel Burton co-authored “Creole Feast: 15 Master Chefs of New Orleans Reveal Their Secrets.” The book showcased the stories of black chefs who helped give the city’s culinary scene its unique taste.
Once while on tour, musician Wynton Marsalis, a friend of Rudy Lombard’s, visited him in Illinois for a home-cooked New Orleans meal, Edwin Lombard said.
Rudy Lombard kept the news of his pancreatic cancer a secret for at least a year, his brother said. Edwin Lombard only learned about it on St. Patrick’s Day when his brother finally told him when Edwin was visiting him.
Rudy Lombard’s last days saw a quick deterioration, his brother said. Until then, he stayed as strong as he could.
“He was as strong as a bull,” Edwin Lombard said, adding that doctors told his brother months ago that his days were numbered. “He willed himself to be around.”
Edwin Lombard described his brother as a friend and mentor who challenged his brothers to grow intellectually and his country to change.
“That was the influence he had,” Edwin Lombard said. “He was the kind of person who tried to make a difference. He saw things he needed to change, and he made them change.”
Rudy Lombard is survived by his brother.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete Sunday.