Feature

James L. Tolbert, 1926–2013

The Hollywood lawyer who fought for civil rights

Love inspired James L. Tolbert to become a lawyer. When he met his wife-to-be, Marie Ross, Tolbert was making a living hosting parties in empty buildings and selling food out of a hearse. Ross said she would marry him only if he stopped “hustling” and became a “doctor, lawyer, or Indian chief.” Tolbert chose lawyer and became black Hollywood’s foremost attorney.

Tolbert was “born into a prominent New Orleans jazz family,” said the Los Angeles Sentinel, but moved to Los Angeles at 10. He dropped out of high school and spent two years in the military before returning to obtain a GED and study journalism at college. With Ross’s encouragement, he went to law school, founded his own law firm, and “ran it for nearly 40 years.”

Tolbert’s clients included such leading black entertainers as trumpeter Harry (Sweets) Edison, comedian Redd Foxx, and singer Lou Rawls, said The New York Times. He co-founded the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP and in 1963 mounted the “March on Hollywood,” a campaign to boycott theaters and advertisers if film studios didn’t hire more black workers and “portray blacks in more diverse roles.”

Tolbert took the nation’s largest ad agencies to task for their “apathy and prejudiced actions,” said the Los Angeles Times. “We Negroes watch Bonanza and buy Chevrolets. We watch Disney on RCA sets,” he told a roomful of executives. “We buy all the advertised products, the same as you do.” Tolbert’s push ushered in a “gradual but meaningful transformation” in the entertainment industry’s treatment of blacks “that resonates today.”

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