I AM: Lonnie Donaldson

Political activist Lonnie Donaldson 

By Gwendolyn Reese

Lonnie Donaldson was a revered name among community and political activists. He was a force to be reckoned with and whose depth of political knowledge was unparalleled in the African-American community for many years.

Donaldson not only served this country as an airman in the United States Air Force, but he also served the community in many capacities. He worked with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Pinellas, the school system, The Weekly Challenger newspaper and the Power Broker magazine. He served as a spokesperson for the St. Petersburg Area Black Chamber of Commerce and as director of the Community Youth Services (CYS) program.

In 2005, Donaldson served on the breakfast committee for the 19th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership & Awards Breakfast. The keynote speaker was 24-year-old Cleo Fields, the youngest person ever elected to the Louisiana state Senate.

He also served as chairman of the NAACP youth council and later as coordinator of the Pinellas County Voter Registration and Education Committee. The committee was formed in 1963 and funded with a grant from the national NAACP when young blacks became dissatisfied with the NAACP’s voter registration drive.

In 1979, Donaldson was facing off against the “black establishment” in the local Democratic caucus to elect delegates to the state Democratic convention. At stake was the chance of being one of the 55 delegates elected from Pinellas to attend the state convention, vote on the party platform and cast a straw ballot for president.

Pinellas and Hillsborough were considered swing counties and were important enough to warrant visits from President Carter and his mother Miss Lillian.

While Julian Bond and others campaigned for the Kennedy slate, Donaldson was quoted in the October 13, 1979, edition of the St. Petersburg Times saying, “More than just four or five blacks should be calling the shots for St. Petersburg’s blacks.” He said the time had come for shared leadership and called for expanded roles for grassroots people in community leadership.

This statement made 39 years ago still is relevant today.

In 1982, Donaldson contemplated entering the primary race for the District 55 seat.  This seat was created, after years of effort on the part of many people in the community, to strengthen the opportunity for black representation in Tallahassee.

It would prove to be a crowded race with five Democratic candidates. Donaldson, 37, Lily James, 40, a junior college administrator who ran unsuccessfully for the Pinellas County School Board in 1980; Morris Milton, 38, a lawyer and president of the local NAACP; Douglas Jamerson, 34, an employee of the school district and Bob Sullivan, a mental health counselor and the only white in the primary race.

Gwen Reese

Gwendolyn Reese, “I AM”

All the black candidates were 40 and younger. He was unsuccessful in his bid for the state House of Representatives, but he will always be remembered as an advocate for voter registration and an advisor to other candidates.

Donaldson died on August 24, 2009, at the age of 64. A month later, the NAACP honored him for his political action work saying: “From voter mobilization to youth development, from advocacy to leadership, Lonnie was gifted with an intimate knowledge of black politics in Pinellas County-the politics, players and precincts, past and present.”

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