BILL MINOR: Early black barrier-breaking Marine hailed from Jackson

BILL MINOR

BILL MINOR

Recently, a brief obituary notice appeared in The (Jackson) Clarion-Ledger saying that James Rundles, 93, had died several days earlier in a Jackson hospital.

Jim Rundles could have been just another longtime Jackson inhabitant who quietly passed on, unnoticed for the time he spent on this earth. But he wasn’t. First of all, going back decades, he had been my friend, for which I’m grateful. But Rundles left a special marker for which all Americans should be grateful. He was one of the rare black men to wear the uniform of the U.S. Marines in World War II.

Jim, a graduate of Jackson’s Lanier High School, could very well have been the first Mississippian of his race inducted in the U.S. Marine Corps. Until 1942 when the Corps began recruiting blacks for the “Montford Marines,” it had refused to enlist blacks. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had ordered the Corps to open its ranks to blacks.

Black men eager to serve like Rundles began flocking to Marine recruiting offices. The black recruits received basic training and spent their war years housed in segregated Camp Montford Point in North Carolina.

The best paying job Jim could get on returning home after the war was as a waiter at LeFleur’s, then by far Jackson’s finest restaurant, launched in downtown Jackson by two local businessmen who brought in some top New Orleans chefs. While Rundles the WWII veteran was still confined within Mississippi segregation, at least LeFleur’s owners put him in a supervisory role to plan for special occasions.

That’s how I first met Rundles. We capital correspondents (five daily newspapers covered the state house then as well as three wire services – no TV yet) had an informal Jackson Press Club which met for a complimentary lunch downstairs at LeFleur’s every Saturday, separated from the paying diners. (On reporters’ peanut salary, we didn’t turn down a tasty free meal.) Rundles was usually designated by LeFleur’s to keep us press stiffs herded. As straw boss of sorts of the reporter crew I often relied on Jim’s friendly guidance to keep the show on the road.

Fast forward to the early 1970s. By then Rundles is also involved in the world of newspapers, though not in the daily field. He’s a columnist for the Jackson Advocate, a weekly designed primarily for the city’s black population. His column, “Up and Down Farish Street” becomes a mainstay for the paper.

When Gov. Bill Waller in 1972 asked me to recommend a list of people for a biracial committee to plan an observance of national United Nations’ Day, I immediately thought of Rundles. Despite getting flak from the Citizens Council and the pro-segregationist Jackson Daily News, Waller stood by his plan to observe United Nations Day. Some 200 people came to a luncheon marking the occasion. Waller was so impressed by Rundles, he hired him as a staffer for minority relations, the first Mississippi governor to employ an African-American assistant.

When I was doing research on the history of Farish Street as the business, professional, dining and cultural apex for Jackson’s black community in the decades after Reconstruction, Rundles was my guide to visit some of the few elderly survivors of the heyday of the street. Rundles, himself had recollections of the times when some of the nationally famous jazz legends performed at Farish Street’s Crystal Palace.

Rundles’ U.S. Marine service in World War II as a member of the all-black Montfort Point Marines has not gone unnoticed by President Barack Obama, the first black elected to the nation’s highest office. Two years ago, Obama presented the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award to the Montford Marines. Thankfully Rundles lived to receive his medal.

Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.