This excerpt has been reprinted from an article by Keith Weldon Medley that originally appeared in the July 2014 edition of The New Orleans Tribune.
In the 1960s, CORE expanded into the Deep South. The move coincided with a deepening involvement of college students in civil rights activities. In February 1960, four students in Greensboro N. C. refused to leave a lunch counter after being refused service sparking the modern day sit-in movement. Their actions prompted similar sit-ins throughout the country including Louisiana. In the spring of 1960, 17 Southern University students were arrested and subsequently expelled from college for conducting demonstrations at segregated facilities in downtown Baton Rouge.
One of the expelled students, Marvin Robinson, became a field director for CORE and initiated efforts to start a chapter in New Orleans. Rudy Lombard was a student at Xavier University when he, Robinson and James McCain met in 1960. Like many in his generation, Lombard was moved to action by the Greensboro sit-ins, an event he described as the “lighting of the torch” for those who sought to quicken the pace of change.
“I was aware of Marvin. I followed the activities of Southern in Baton Rouge. He told me CORE was putting together a meeting at the Dryades Street Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and asked me to get involved,” Lombard recalls. “That’s where I met Oretha Castle Haley, Julia Aaron, Jerome Smith, and other students from Southern University. Also present were David Dennis from Dillard, and White students from Tulane including Bill Harrel and Hugh Murray.”
That group became the core of CORE in the city. Lombard became the local chairperson.
In September of 1960, CORE engineered New Orleans’ first sit-in of the modern era. Seven of its members sat down at Woolworth’s “White Only” lunch counter at Canal and North Rampart streets and ordered food. After being denied service, at 2:30 p.m. the police surrounded, closed and barricaded the counter. They arrested the CORE members and charged them with ‘taking temporary possession of a man’s business.’ The arrestees included former Southern students, Jerome Smith and Ruth D’aspenza; Tulane students, William Harrell and Hugh Murray; Xavier student, Joyce Taylor; SUNO student, William Harper; and Dillard student, Archie Allen.
The following day, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council picketed in their defense. In addition, St. James A.M.E. Church donated proceeds from a Fellowship of Prayer offering while the Studs Social and Pleasure Club solicited donations from its membership. In response to the protests, Mayor ‘Chep’ Morrison threatened that “no more sit-in demonstrations or picketing of retail stores would be permitted.” Despite his rebuke, four days later Lombard, Oretha Castle, Cecil Carter and Sidney Goldfinch repeated the sit-in tactic at the McCrory’s store on Canal Street. Lombard refused bond and issued a statement of CORE’s position.
“The issue is clear,” he stated. “Segregation is morally wrong. We must oppose it if we are to live with ourselves.”
Through CORE, a tight-knit group of young New Orleanians and their allies became involved in the struggle for equality. In addition to Lombard, local CORE activists included Isaac Reynolds, Matt Suarez, Dr. Henry Mitchell, Doratha “Dodie” Smith-Simmons, Oretha Castle Haley and attorneys Robert Collins and Lolis Elie.
Despite frequent police harassment and jail terms, New Orleans CORE members sat-in at restaurants, knelt-in at segregated churches and spent long hours picketing stores on Canal and Dryades streets. Their leaflets advised New Orleanians to “Don’t Buy Discrimination” and “Register to Vote”. They supported efforts to desegregate New Orleans schools. Cultural offshoots of their movement included the New Orleans-based Free Southern Theater.
Attorneys Robert Collins, Nils Douglas, John P. Nelson, and Lolis Elie defended many CORE activists in the Orleans Parish court system. Elie remembers them as a group of people who transcended traditional civil rights organizations:
“What CORE brought was not just people who paid dues and attended meetings,” Elie says. “They were more in line with what the Underground Railroad was about. They worked for civil rights seven days a week.”