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Ivanhoe Donaldson dies; civil rights leader was 74

Ivanhoe Donaldson, left, and Mayor Marion Barry are

Ivanhoe Donaldson, left, and Mayor Marion Barry are seen in this 1983 photo. Credit: Washington Post / Harry Naltchayan

WASHINGTON — Ivanhoe Donaldson, a civil rights activist and astute political tactician who became a confidant of Marion Barry Jr. and guided his rise to D.C. mayor, and who was convicted of embezzling $190,000 in city funds while serving in his administration, died April 3 at his home in Washington. He was 74.

The cause was complications from cancer and other ailments, said Fred Cooke, a friend and former D.C. corporation counsel.

Donaldson, a tightly wound former college track star and intellectual drawn to the works of Dostoevsky and Camus, was often described as a man of fiery drive. He was a militant civil rights activist, a shrewd political strategist and an organizer par excellence.

A New York City police officer’s son, he had been an engineering student at Michigan State University when he plunged into the civil rights struggle in 1960. He had been inspired by news coverage of sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he saw people his own age risking their safety to confront Jim Crow discrimination.

He went to the South to assist in voter-registration efforts, eventually becoming a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Members of the group, known as SNCC and pronounced “snick,” were often called the “shock troops” of the civil rights movement for their bravery in the Deep South in the face of assault and other forms of recrimination by Ku Klux Klansmen and other thugs, as well as local authorities.

“I knew something momentous was beginning,” Donaldson once told The Washington Post. “I wanted to be there.”

He organized drives for clothing, food and medical supplies, hauling the goods by truck from Michigan to Mississippi.Once, a police officer jammed the barrel of a gun into Donaldson’s mouth in circumstances that caused him to believe death was imminent. At other moments, he was roughed up badly and bore the scars of such incidents on his forehead.

Donaldson tried mightily to keep his cool under stressful and sometimes hostile conditions. “I had to learn to span the gap between my emotional reactions and intellectual perceptions,” he told The Post. “Harry Belafonte was the person who taught me how to deal with the emotional rage while advocating those perceptions of balance.”

Donaldson became director of SNCC’s New York office, remaining with the organization through its increasing militancy under Stokely Carmichael in the late 1960s. He also began to burnish his reputation as a tough, skillful political infighter who helped usher a generation of black political leaders into elective office. His most prominent victories included Julian Bond’s Georgia House of Representatives bid in 1965 and Richard Hatcher’s race for mayor of Gary, Indiana, in 1967.

His most enduring association was with Barry, who had been the first national chairman of the SNCC. In Washington, the two activists were said to have recognized the untapped electoral power of the city’s black population.

Donaldson managed Barry’s successful campaign for City Council in 1974 and then his upset primary victory in 1978 over incumbent mayor Walter E. Washington and City Council president Sterling Tucker.

Barry’s win was a stunning achievement, transforming him from a noted figure in the civil rights movement into the mayor of a major American city. But at first, Barry had been written off as a long shot and was lagging in the polls, and Donaldson was credited with energizing the campaign.

“We talked about the city, who would be in the race, all the political variables, then I studied the candidate, the candidate’s ego,” Donaldson told The Post at the time. “Once I knew we were prepared emotionally to lose, then I knew we could win.”

As the shadow power behind the city’s highest ranking executive, Donaldson was described as a combative but effective troubleshooter. He resisted the spotlight, insisting on keeping the mayor front and center at all times. “I’m a political hack,” he once quipped. “He’s the politician.”

Between stints helping Barry - he engineered the mayor’s re-election triumph in 1982 - Donaldson held official titles: acting director of the Department of Employment Services and deputy mayor for economic development. He left city government in late 1983 to become a vice president at E.F. Hutton, the investment services firm.

Word soon trickled out that he was a target of a grand jury investigation. News accounts implied that after he had become prominent in Washington, his tastes had changed and that he felt the pull of the expensive lifestyles of associates who had access to far more money. He drove a Mercedes-Benz and bought tailored suits and jewelry.

Meanwhile, a contractor had taken him to court over failure to pay the expenses of remodeling his condominium, and he was sued over $3,000 in unpaid credit card bills. His investment in various business ventures also brought a deluge of creditors to his doorstep.

In December 1985, following months of investigation by the FBI and the IRS, he admitted to three felonies: tax fraud, obstruction of justice and interstate transportation of fraudulently obtained funds.

Donaldson stood before a judge in the federal courthouse in the District and pleaded guilty to siphoning off $190,000 from the District government during his years on the city payroll. The U.S. attorney’s office said Mr. Donaldson “had access to and systematically stole money” from a city account used for overseeing unemployment funds.

Before sentencing, Judge Gerhard A. Gesell received more than 40 letters portraying him as a man of character. One came from Coretta Scott King, the widow of the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Donaldson was sentenced to seven years in prison, the repayment of city funds and a fine of $15,000, far less than the maximum penalty. “What happened was wrong,” Donaldson told the judge. “I want to apologize to the court, to my community, to my friends, to my wife.”

Ivanhoe Donaldson was born in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood on Oct. 17, 1941, and he grew up in the Bronx. His mother, a poetry and literature enthusiast, named him after a novel by Sir Walter Scott.

His own interests veered to math and science. Calling himself “a child of Sputnik,” referring to the Soviet satellite whose 1957 launch propelled the space race, he said his ambitions were to work for NASA.

Instead, he felt the call of the civil rights movement, participating in demonstrations from Danville, Virginia, to Selma, Alabama. In one account reported in The Post, an unnamed friend described the low-key demeanor of the ordinarily high-octane Donaldson as he worked patiently to encourage blacks to take the dramatic step of attempting to vote.

He had a “very soft touch,” the friend said, noting that Donaldson sat for hours on porches, talking and listening. At other times, he sat among worshippers at church, enthusiastically singing hymns.

In 1978, he married Winifred Burrell, from whom he was long separated. Besides his wife, of Charlotte, North Carolina, survivors include their daughter, Tiffany; and a sister.

Donaldson was resilient in defeat. Released from prison after three years, he returned to political and business consulting in Washington until retiring in 2006.

In explaining the respect Donaldson maintained among many even after his crimes, Cooke said in an interview: “He didn’t try to dissemble or blame the dogs who ate his homework. He owned it.”

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