by Zella Palmer
February 8, 2023
In 2014, I was invited to a private lunch to meet the legendary Rudy Joseph Lombard at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in Treme. Lombard sat stoically at the head of the table as we celebrated his arrival back to his native home here in New Orleans.
Lombard, a civil rights activist and author, was known as a changemaker and renaissance man. He was a friend of many in the civil rights movement.
As the New Orleans president of CORE, the Congress for Racial Equality, Lombard had organized students from Xavier, Dillard, Tulane and Loyola universities to sit in at the former McCory’s and Five and Dime lunch counters on Canal Street in 1960. I was mesmerized by Lombard’s and the students’ conviction and direct action to sit in, “until it stopped or we died.” Arrested, charged and convicted under Louisiana criminal mischief laws, their appeal resulted in the historic 1963 U.S. Supreme Court Lombard v. Louisiana ruling that led to the desegregation of lunch counters and other public spaces.
At the time of this dinner nearly a decade ago, Lombard had been diagnosed with cancer and knew that the end of his time on this earth was near. But he carried his fatal cancer prognosis with grace and dignity.
I was a young food historian enamored with Lombard. He was not only a civil rights legend, but he was also the author of the 1978 book, “Creole Feast,” the only cookbook to tell the story of 15 Black Master Chefs in New Orleans.
I sat at the table with butterflies in my stomach, praying to my ancestors that I would say the right thing. Lombard said, “Palmer, where are you from?” I told him with non-native trepidation, “I am from Chicago.” He smiled, knowing that for generations the New Orleans Crescent train to Chicago led many native sons to the Windy City to work in the steel mills and meat stockyards in the bitter freezing cold, including my own people.
Then the classic “Who’s your people?” question came next. I responded with a soft voice, “Edward ‘Buzz’ and Alice Palmer.” The room was silent waiting for Lombard to accept or deny me entry into his world. His voice raised with respect, “Buzz and Alice Palmer? Give this girl whatever she wants.” I deeply exhaled. Lombard knew what my parents and many others of that era called “The Struggle” and that their generation’s involvement was global. Lombard had lived it from New Orleans to Mississippi and in Chicago where he spent his final years.
There we were in the same restaurant where a young Rudy and his civil rights compatriots — Black and white — met in secrecy on the second floor during segregation. There the youth activists were fed hot bowls of Leah Chase’s famous gumbo. Later, a bombing attempt was made at the restaurant to warn Chase about allowing the multiracial groups to meet there.
But whether in Louisiana or Mississippi, Georgia or Alabama, food was a tool of resistance and Black women were at the forefront of resisting the Jim Crow South. Black women in the Deep South made suppers and opened their humble homes to raise funds and feed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee students and Freedom Riders. A decade later, the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program provided healthy, hot meals for inner-city youth.
Food was not only a form of resistance but it was also a form of unity for those participating in the resistance. During the civil rights movement, many white activists got a taste of Southern down-home cooking for the first time. For example, Georgia Gilmore of Montgomery, Alabama was known for serving delicious Southern meals that warmed the souls of freedom-fighting Black and white activists including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Lombard’s peaceful disobedience in desegregating restaurants and lunch counters was an act of resistance. It was a force of light so that future generations could break bread in peace together no matter the race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality or social class. The very act of dining together is intimate, humane and sacred.
That weekend, Lombard invited his closest friends to his living repast at New Zion Baptist Church at the corner of Third and Lasalle streets. The same church in the New Orleans Uptown neighborhood is where a chapter of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed.
We all sat in the church listening to stories of the movement and how a young Rudy Lombard and New Orleans activists such as David Dennis Sr., Don Hubbard, Jerome Smith and Oretha Castle Haley were pivotal in fighting for the rights we hold so dear today.
As Lombard second-lined down the street with all of his friends waving handkerchiefs bidding him a New Orleans adieu, I said a prayer for his journey home and for all of those who sacrificed for us including my beloved father who would later die in 2021 of Lombard’s same fate, cancer. These renaissance men and women put their bodies on the line and believed in freedom, justice and equality for all to live a lush life.
Food has always been an integral part of the struggle for freedom. Black women sold baked goods that helped raise money for rides during the 1955 Birmingham Bus Boycott. Young Black and white activists in SNCC shared meals and tables. They ate at the homes of Black sharecroppers in Mississippi. And civil rights leaders often strategized over plates of fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese and cornbread topped off with sweet tea.
Food not only soothed the soul, it was also a peacemaker. Then, and now, food has been about bringing people together, not keeping them separate because of their race.