Obituary: James L. Tolbert / Lawyer who pressed Hollywood, advertisers on civil rights

Oct. 26, 1926 - April 22, 2013

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In a Hollywood auditorium, James L. Tolbert tried to induce a room packed with broadcasting and advertising executives to essentially join the civil rights movement in 1963 by pointing out the obvious.

"We Negroes watch 'Bonanza' and buy Chevrolets. We watch 'Disney' on RCA sets," proclaimed Mr. Tolbert, an entertainment attorney who was speaking to the 125 invited guests in his role as president of the NAACP's Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch. "We buy all the advertised products, the same as you do."

Delivered weeks before the March on Washington, the speech pointed out the absence of African-Americans on both sides of the camera. It marked the start of an NAACP campaign that pushed Hollywood and Madison Avenue for greater representation of black people on-screen and in craft unions.

The "March on Hollywood" would cause a gradual but meaningful transformation, according to historians, that resonates today.

"The work of James Tolbert was as pioneering as many other civil rights advocates who are a well-known part of our history," Mary Ann Watson, author of the 1990 book "The Expanding Vista: American Television in the Kennedy Years," said.

Mr. Tolbert, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease years ago, died April 22 at a hospital in Santa Monica, Calf., his family said. He was 86.

By 1960, Mr. Tolbert was an entertainment lawyer with his own firm and soon a co-founder of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

As part of the campaign to integrate Hollywood, Mr. Tolbert pressured craft unions to "hire one Negro on every movie and television show," according to a 1963 edition of the Crisis, an NAACP publication.

The sitcom "Hazel" was singled out as a test case. A threatened boycott of show sponsor Ford Motor Co. was averted in fall 1963 when an African-American production assistant for Columbia Pictures became a production liaison on the program, integrating the "lily-white" technical crew, Mr. Tolbert had said in the Los Angeles Times.

That same fall, Mr. Tolbert told a gathering of the nation's largest ad agencies that their own apathy and prejudiced actions had led to the organization's demands, according to the 2008 book "Madison Avenue and the Color Line."

"No segment in America has done so much to make Negro Americans the invisible men as the advertising industry," Mr. Tolbert said as the NAACP urged agencies to employ more African-American models and actors.

While advertisers were slower to change, the campaign resulted in tangible gains in union hiring of technicians in the entertainment industry. The NAACP's own 1964 survey showed that African-Americans had held more than 80 roles in the most recent 35 films produced. Over the previous year, they also had appeared on television in almost 140 parts, Jet magazine reported that July.

The middle of five children, James Lionel Tolbert was born Oct. 26, 1926, in New Orleans. His father, Albert Tolbert, was a chauffeur and his mother, the former Alice Young, hailed from a jazz family. Her brother, Lester Young, was a noted tenor saxophonist.

When he was 10, James was sent to Los Angeles with his older sister and brother to receive musical training from their grandfather, Willis Young, a jazz educator who schooled him on trumpet.

In 10th grade, Mr. Tolbert dropped out of high school because it was fashionable among his crowd, he later said. After serving in the Army from 1945 to 1947, he earned his high school equivalency degree.

He received a bachelor's degree in journalism in 1955 from what is now California State University, Los Angeles, and attended Loyola Law School before graduating in 1959 from the now-defunct Van Norman Law School.

The law firm he established eventually became known as Tolbert, Wooden & Malone and endured for nearly 40 years. His clients included actor Redd Foxx, singers Lou Rawls and Della Reese, and trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison.



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