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Civil rightsfigure James Tolbert dies at 86

LOS ANGELES -- 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 Los Angeles 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.

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 Association 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.

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.

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.

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, Calif.; and two grandchildren.

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