Lawyer championed blacks' cause in Hollywood




26-10-1926 - 22-4-2013

James L. Tolbert was in love. Marie Ross was too. But she had little interest in marrying a man who pieced together his income by hosting parties and concerts in empty buildings. One of his gimmicks: selling food and drink out of an old hearse.

"He was just hustling," said Tolbert's son, Tony. "She said he needed to have some kind of career. She said, 'Doctor, lawyer or Indian chief."'

Tolbert, a high school dropout, chose the second option. He went on to become one of the first black lawyers to represent black entertainers in Hollywood, and to play a central role in an early effort to improve the way blacks were portrayed on film and increase their numbers behind the scenes.

Tolbert, who was 86 when he died in Los Angeles, grew up surrounded by entertainers. His grandfather, Willis Young, was an anchor of the Los Angeles jazz scene in the 1930s, and the great saxophonist Lester Young was an uncle. After he graduated from Van Norman Law School in 1959, Tolbert began building a four-decade practice rooted in his family's connections.

His clients included the trumpeter Harry (Sweets) Edison, the actor and comedian Redd Foxx, and the singers Lou Rawls and Della Reese. Some of their success can be traced to the work Tolbert did as the young president of the Hollywood-Beverly Hills chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in the early 1960s.

In June 1963, only weeks before the March on Washington, the NAACP mounted what some called the "March on Hollywood" - a political and economic campaign in which the organisation promised to picket theatres, hold demonstrations and boycott major advertisers if film studios and unions did not portray blacks in more diverse roles and hire more of them to work in the industry.

At one news conference, Tolbert urged studios "to have Negroes shown as they are, instead of as caricatures", and he challenged unions to hire at least one black worker for each production. Some unions later adopted an apprenticeship program but never carried it out, the NAACP said.

Some within the organisation criticised Tolbert for not immediately insisting on advertising boycotts. But he portrayed himself as a moderate, preferring to press his case using practical arguments.

"We Negroes watch Bonanza and buy Chevrolets," he told a group of broadcast and advertising executives in August 1963. "We watch Disney on RCA sets. Jack Benny entertains us, and we buy General Foods products ... We buy all the advertised products, the same as you do."

That September, he noted that there had been some, if halting, progress in the kinds of roles black actors were receiving. But two years later, the NAACP's national labour secretary, Herbert Hill, complained that what progress had been made had been fleeting.

James Lionel Tolbert was born on October 26, 1926, in New Orleans. He and two of his sisters moved to Los Angeles when he was 10. He enlisted in the army after he dropped out of high school.

In addition to his son, Tolbert is survived by his wife of 55 years, Marie; their daughters, Anita and Alicia; two grandchildren; and two sisters, Martha Taylor and Esther Ford.

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