James Tolbert dies at 86; lawyer pressed Hollywood on civil rights
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 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,” told The Times last week.
Tolbert, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease years ago, died April 22 at UCLA-Santa Monica Hospital, his family said. He was 86.
“What Tolbert and other activists intuited was that entertainment is just as important as any other aspect of civil rights. The storytellers transmit the culture. If you have black people invisible in the main storytelling, that means they are invisible,” said Watson, a professor of electronic media and film studies at Eastern Michigan University.
By 1960 Tolbert was an entertainment attorney with his own firm and soon a co-founder of the Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
As part of the campaign to integrate Hollywood, 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, Tolbert had said in The Times.
That same fall 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,” 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 change was so apparent Watson called it “the civil-rights season.”
“Tolbert was a true visionary, and the nation owes him a debt of gratitude,” said Michelle D. Bernard, who is writing a book called “Moving America Toward Justice, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, 1963-2013.”
He “will be remembered,” she said, “as the man who brought the civil rights movement and the African American struggle for racial equality to Hollywood.”
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, 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 Cal State 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.
From 1988 to 1990, Tolbert was president of the San Fernando Valley Arts Council. He also served on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission and the board of the Southern California Rapid Transit District in the early 1990s.
While raising his family in the San Fernando Valley, the upbeat Tolbert hosted nightly “Jeopardy"-style quizzes at the dinner table and modeled a philosophy of giving.
His son, Tony, is a lawyer who credits the influence of both parents but especially his father for motivating him to move out of his Los Angeles home in 2011 and allow a series of struggling families to live there rent-free for a year.
“This is, in some way, an extension of his philosophy,” Tony told The Times in December. “He was always willing to open up our home to someone in need.”
Tolbert is survived by his wife of 57 years, Marie, and children Anita, Tony and Alicia, all of Los Angeles; sisters Martha Taylor of New Orleans and Esther Ford of Sacramento; and two grandchildren.
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