October 17, 1941 – April 3, 2016
Raised in New York City, New York
In late 1962, in retaliation for SNCC’s voter registration activities, Mississippi white officials cut off the distribution of surplus commodities from the federal government. 27,000 people in the Delta, mostly Black, depended on these commodities for sustenance during the winter months when there was a lull in agricultural work. SNCC put out a national call for food.
The desperate need for assistance attracted Ivanhoe Donaldson’s attention. He was then an engineering student at Michigan State in East Lansing. He had already been in the South a few times supporting SNCC’s work but was not yet on SNCC’s staff. When the appeal for food reached him, Donaldson immediately organized a food drive on campus. Then he and his roommate Ben Taylor rented a truck and headed down into the Delta with over-the-counter medical supplies as well as food.
This response, as well as his contact with SNCC, was typical for him. Donaldson, a New Yorker with Jamaican roots had been involved in human rights activities since high school. College intensified this propensity. “State [had] a way of radicalizing you fast, if you are open to that,” he recalled. During his freshman year Donaldson joined a circle of Black students who were active on campus and in the community. He wrote for the school newspaper and produced a series of articles on Marcus Garvey. He also met Malcolm X, who came to speak on campus his freshman year. “I tuned right into [Malcolm X’s political message],” remembered Donaldson, “which had a lot to do with self-reliance, independence, self-responsibility.”
Mississippi further deepened his commitment. After a long drive from Carl and Anne Braden’s home in Louisville, Kentucky, they reached Clarksdale, Mississippi and went to sleep in the truck they had been driving. They were awakened by the police, and the pair were arrested. The policemen found aspirin and vitamins in a search of the vehicle and charged Donaldson and Taylor with the interstate transportation of narcotics. They spent a week in jail before the NAACP bailed them out on a $15,000 bond. For Donaldson, the arrest convinced him to commit full-time to the Movement.
In 1963, he began working in Mississippi as a SNCC field secretary. On one occasion while encouraging local Black people to register to vote, a white police officer threw Donaldson in the back of his car and shoved a pistol in his mouth. In that moment, Donaldson thought, “this guy [is] going to blow me away.” Such violent experiences were routine for SNCC field secretaries, who worked in some of the most dangerous areas of the Deep South. The youthful organization had more field secretaries operating in Mississippi than any other civil rights establishment.
Like many Mississippi field secretaries, Donaldson initially opposed the Freedom Summer Project, which proposed to bring several hundred northern volunteers to the Magnolia State to help grow the Movement. Donaldson wanted to prioritize the empowerment of local people and was concerned that northern volunteers would take leadership roles away from local Blacks involved in the Movement. He also criticized other mobilization strategies employed by civil rights organizations. When asked about the March on Washington and other similar demonstrations, he said, “They created a lot of hoopla, a lot of drama, but didn’t accomplish much.”
These concerns notwithstanding, Donaldson remained committed to SNCC. After Freedom Summer, Donaldson left the South and settled in Columbus, Ohio, where he initiated a “community foundation” program. The program was designed to facilitate the self-determination of impoverished urban Black communities. Donaldson also served as a campaign manager for Julian Bond’s successful 1965 campaign for a seat in the Georgia state legislature. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Donaldson urged SNCC to place more emphasis on economic justice, international solidarity, and opposition to the Vietnam War.
Later Donaldson moved to Washington, DC where he managed Marion Barry’s successful campaign for mayor and became the deputy mayor of the city.
Clayborne Carson, SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1981).
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995).
Interview with Ivanhoe Donaldson by Rachel Reinhard, September 20, 2003, Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, University of Southern Mississippi.
Ivanhoe Donaldson, Vol. 11, “Arkansas, Cambridge, MD, Danville, VA,” SNCC 50th Anniversary Conference, 2010, California Newsreel.
Ivanhoe Donaldson, Vol. 14, “The Political Impact of SNCC 1964 to 1984,” SNCC 50th Anniversary Conference, 2010, California Newsreel.