When Rudy Lombard ran health fairs around Evanston to educate people on prostate disease, diabetes and other illnesses in the African-American community, few knew he was a civil rights icon lionized in New Orleans for his efforts to desegregate lunch counters and his work with the martyrs of Freedom Summer.
The eat-in he and three other college students staged at McCrory’s restaurant, a New Orleans five-and-dime, led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that backed the protesters. In his decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “There is no way, as I see it, in which a State can license and supervise a business serving the public and endow it with the authority to manage that business on the basis of apartheid, which is foreign to our Constitution.”
Mr. Lombard, 75, who died of pancreatic cancer last month in his native New Orleans, ran unsuccessfully for mayor of his hometown in 1986. Of all the candidates, “People used to say he made the most sense,” said his brother, Edwin A. Lombard, a judge on Louisiana’s 4th Circuit Court of Appeal.
Mr. Lombard also co-wrote a classic 1978 book, “Creole Feast.” It is considered a breakthrough in giving credit where it was due for the plate-lickingly good cuisine in some of the Big Easy’s finest restaurants: African-American chefs who infused their heritage into recipes. It led to him cooking meals for actor Carroll O’Connor, who played benightedly bigoted Archie Bunker on TV’s “All in the Family.” And, he was friends with “Roots’’ author Alex Haley.
“He was an incredible dude,” his brother said.
“Rudy Lombard was a principal figure in Louisiana in the civil rights movement,” said Chicago attorney James D. Montgomery.
About 20 years ago, Mr. Lombard settled in Chicago. He didn’t like the winters, but he fell in love with the big-city buzz and with Steppin,’ a gliding, Chicago-based swing dance popular in the African-American community. He kept active with Steppin,’ but moved home late last year when his illness took hold.
Mr. Lombard was born in the Algiers section of New Orleans to Delores and Warren Lombard, “hard-working poor people,” his brother said. His mother was a domestic worker and his father was a nurse’s aide at a U.S. Marines hospital.
He was senior class president at Xavier University when he got involved with CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. In 1960, he and three other students — one white, two black — sat down at the McCrory’s restaurant counter and requested service. Though they were orderly, the restaurant manager would testify that “he asked them to leave because they were Negroes,” the Supreme Court ruling said.
The mayor barred the demonstrations, and they were jailed and convicted of criminal mischief. Mr. Lombard became the marquee name in the case dubbed “Lombard vs. Louisiana.”
The Lombards received phone calls threatening to bomb their house. “We were all worried,” his brother said.
It was a watershed moment for New Orleans, which prided itself on outward gentility, Edwin Lombard said. And, “they didn’t have much support in the bourgeoisie of the black community,” he said.
Ultimately, he said, it led to other civil rights efforts. “This was in the Deep South, and it kind of set the tone,” he said. “It launched these young activists to go further in the movement.”
Four years later, Mr. Lombard was in Philadelphia, Miss. with the Freedom Riders, the civil rights organizers who engaged in voter registration drives amid tremendous hostility. “They had a place called the Freedom House. Had it all barb-wired when they went to sleep at night,” Edwin Lombard said. In a notorious act of domestic terror, three of the workers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — disappeared and were later found executed.
Mr. Lombard knew fear. “He told me how frightened they were in Philadelphia, Miss. when they couldn’t find Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner. Because they had a system for checking on each other, and couldn’t find them, they knew something was wrong.”
That summer, Mr. Lombard met actress Denise Nicholas in Mississippi as she performed with the Free Southern Theater. In an email, she credited him for “helping me to connect the dots of the depth of African-American culture, our arduous journey in this land, our contributions to this great place. . . In my civil rights movement novel, ‘Freshwater Road,’ the character of Ed Jolivette is based on Rudy Lombard.”
Nicholas, a veteran of TV’s “Room 222,” “Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper,” “Living Single” and the “Rockford Files” also appeared on the O’Connor show, “In the Heat of the Night.” Nicholas introduced the actor to Mr. Lombard. “Carroll was a very political being and adored Rudy,” she said. “When Rudy’s cookbook was published, the O’Connors hosted two book parties for Rudy and flew [co-author] Chef Nathaniel Burton to L.A. to cook the cuisine featured in the book. It was held at their Malibu beachfront home and was glorious.”
Their book, “Creole Feast,” was “the first time someone said, ‘Here are the [African-American]people who made a difference’” in the restaurant kitchens of New Orleans, said Jan Longone, a culinary historian at the University of Michigan.
“Rudy was a culinary artist,” said Montgomery. “He was a connoisseur of fine wines.”
Mr. Lombard earned a bachelor’s degree at Xavier University, and a master’s of arts and a doctorate in social sciences at Syracuse University. He taught at Howard University and New York University and worked in city planning in Louisiana.
He believed strongly in his work as a health researcher and director of community outreach for NorthShore University Health System.
“He saw this as the next phase of the civil rights movement, these big health inequities between minorities and others,” said Andy Buchanan, a NorthShore spokesman. After Mr. Lombard recovered from prostate cancer, “He made it his business to get the word out to his fellow African-Americans, to get screened and not to hide from the disease,” said Dr. Charles B. Brendler, who added there are plans to rename the system’s educational effort “the Rudy Lombard Community Outreach Health Awareness Program.”
To the end, Mr. Lombard remained a Southern gentleman. Because of the cancer, “He couldn’t hold his head up. But when that doctor told him there was nothing more he could do, he lifted his head and took off his gloves — his hands were always cold from the treatment — and he shook that doctor’s hand and thanked him,” his brother said. “He kept thanking me.”
Mr. Lombard was married twice and divorced. His sister, Warraine, and another brother, Roland, died before him. He is also survived by a niece and two nephews. A celebration of his life is planned Feb. 21 in New Orleans, where the Treme Brass Band is to play “Just a Little While to Stay Here” and “Didn’t He Ramble.”