Today, if you watch television, you’ll see plenty of African-American actors playing major roles — from LL Cool J, who portrays a hunky Navy cop on the hit crime series NCIS: Los Angeles, to Kerry Washington, who plays political power-broker Olivia Pope on ABC’s just-renewed series Scandal.
But it wasn’t always like that. In fact, when entertainment lawyer James Tolbert, who died on April 22 at age 86 in Santa Monica, started working to break the network color line in the early 1960s, there were few blacks in Hollywood — not just in acting, but on the other side of the camera, too.
Tolbert, who cofounded the Beverly Hills-Hollywood branch of the NAACP, helped shatter that color line. A moderate who preferred negotiation to confrontation, he worked hard to persuade more-aggressive activists to hold off on picketing the studios. Instead, he personally prodded network and advertising executives — who often publicly espoused support for the civil rights movement — to live up to their professed convictions. In an August 1963 speech to 125 of the industry’s top movers and shakers, later recounted by industry historian Mary Ann Watson, Tolbert made the case to them that integration also was a smart business move:
“We Negroes watch Bonanza and buy Chevrolets. We watch Disney on RCA sets. Jack Benny entertains us and we buy General Foods products. Our babies eat Gerber baby foods and we photograph them with Polaroid cameras. … we buy all the advertised products, the same as you do.”
Tolbert simultaneously pressured craft unions, and pushed for the hiring of at least one African-American technical employee on every movie and television show. He and the NAACP decided to crack the color line with the sitcom Hazel, and threatened a boycott of sponsor Ford Motor Co., unless the production hired at least one black. “We have said that beginning with Hazel, every crew should be integrated,” he proclaimed in a 1963 New York Times article. Hazel‘s producers agreed to comply, and hired a black employee. Others soon followed.
Within a few years, Tolbert’s efforts paid off. By the 1963-1964 season, black actors played almost 140 parts in network TV series, according to a Jet magazine analysis. The following year, Bill Cosby because the first African-American to star in a TV drama, with his role as Alexander Scott in NBC’s I Spy.
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