James L. Tolbert: Activist lawyer pushed Hollywood to integrate
LOS ANGELES — In a Hollywood auditorium in 1963, James L. Tolbert pointed out the obvious to a room packed with broadcasting and advertising executives.
“We Negroes watch ‘Bonanza' and buy Chevrolets. We watch ‘Disney' on RCA sets,” proclaimed Tolbert, an entertainment attorney speaking to 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 civil rights movement's “March on Washington,” the speech pointed out the absence of blacks on both sides of the camera. It marked the start of an NAACP campaign that pushed Hollywood and Madison Avenue for greater representation of blacks on-screen and in craft unions.
“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 Los Angeles Times.
Tolbert, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, died April 22 in 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.
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 technical crew.
That fall, Tolbert told a gathering of the largest ad agencies that their 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.
While advertisers were slower to change, the campaign resulted in tangible gains in union hiring of technicians.
Writer Michelle Bernard said Tolbert “will be remembered as the man who brought the civil rights movement and the African-American struggle for racial equality to Hollywood.”