Lynn Walker Huntley: Major Force for Rights, Equity and Justice
Ms. Huntley joined the Ford Foundation in 1982 as a program officer for civil rights, ultimately becoming director of the Rights and Social Justice program. Among her achievements there, she helped initiate the prize-winning documentary “Eyes on the Prize”, a history of the civil rights movement.
Her commitment to civil rights began early in her life, nurtured by the example of her father, the Rev. Lawrence N. Jones, who was active in the movement in the 1960s when he was associated with Fisk University and, later, dean of the divinity school at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
After graduating with honors from Barnard College with a degree in sociology she enrolled in law school at Columbia University, where she was the first African American woman editor of the Columbia Law Review and from which she also graduated with honors.
Her career in law and social justice began immediately when she became a law clerk for Constance Baker Motley, the first female black federal judge and, as an attorney with the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), had worked on the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case.
Ms. Huntley, too, then went to work for the LDF, in 1971, as a staff attorney, handling cases on prison reform, the death penalty, desegregation and job discrimination. Most notably, she helped write the brief in the case of a Georgia prisoner that led to the Supreme Court’s decision in 1972 that the death penalty was “cruel and unusual punishment”, ordering an end to all executions. Four years later, though, after many states rewrote their capital punishment laws, the court upheld executions, nullifying the earlier decision.
She took two years away from her work at LDF in 1973 to be general counsel to the New York City Commission on Human Rights, and left in 1980 to go to work for the United States Justice Department, becoming the first black woman to head its Special Litigation Section in the Civil Rights Division. She was promoted to deputy assistant attorney general, overseeing litigation designed to combat discrimination in employment, housing and federal programs.
At Ford, “her tenure was distinguished by creativity, vision, idealism and good humor—all in the pursuit of justice,” recalled Anthony D. Romero, who she hired to work in the Rights and Social Justice Program and now is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“She was a woman with a towering intellect, which she assiduously deployed to make the world a better place,” he wrote. “The groundbreaking programs she started at Ford continue to make a difference in civil and human rights to this day….With a keen ability to discern talent among yet untested professionals, she brought to Ford a cohort of professionals who would amplify her vision and give it greater impact….
“Those of us who answered the call to work for Lynn knew the standards would be high and the expectations great. We were brought on to serve a cause, to make a difference, to throw open the doors of opportunity—to use Ford’s resources to benefit the ‘least among us’.
“She led us with clarity, resilience, doggedness, intelligence and elegance. She irrigated and fertilized our souls and spirits with unflinching support, love and the best of humor.”
(Anthony Romero’s full tribute is posted on the Ford Foundation website.)
She left Ford in 1995 to work with the Southern Education Foundation in Atlanta, a public charity devoted to advancing equity and excellence in education for low-income students, particularly African Americans and Latinos. She became its president in 2002 and retired in 2010. While there she conceived and directed a multi-year comparative study of race and inequality in Brazil, South Africa and the United States. She edited the final report and handed it personally to President Nelson Mandela of South Africa.
In a statement from the Legal Defense Fund, its president and director-counsel, Sherrilyn Ifill, said, “Women like Ms. Walker Huntley inspired generations of women lawyers and philanthropists who came after her. She dedicated her life to service of the vulnerable and forged a path to secure civil rights and greater opportunity for communities of color from the United States to South Africa and Brazil.”
A long-time colleague and friend, Elaine Jones, a former director of the Legal Defense Fund, said that Ms. Huntley was not only a “superb lawyer” but she “was humble, and she cared about people no matter their status. What motivated her was human rights and social justice.”
Ms. Huntley was a member of the board of several organizations, including the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, whose president, Sherry Magill, noted her “enormous sense of justice and deep concern for those less fortunate. I think that was why she found philanthropy so satisfying. She felt that in some way she was helping to rebalance the scales. She always said that in practicing philanthropy, ‘first and foremost, have humility’.”
Alicia Philipp, president of the The Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta, said, “We will never forget her incredible brilliance, her quirky sense of humor and her amazing ability to ask the right question. There was never an elephant in the room with Lynn—she always named it and asked the tough questions….”
One of the enduring memories of Ms. Huntley is her sense of humor and broad, frequent laugh. Bradford Smith, president of The Foundation Center, who worked at Ford during Ms. Huntley’s tenure, said, “Lynn was one of those absolutely unique and inspirational leaders who understood that a life dedicated to fighting deeply entrenched injustice needs to be leavened with the ability to laugh out loud.”
David Arnold, now president of the Asia Foundation, remembers that “She had a keen intellect, a profound sense of social justice and an irrepressible wit. I have not seen her in several years, but I will always remember her laugh echoing down the corridors of the 6th floor.”
Michael Seltzer, Distinguished Lecturer at the Baruch School of Public Affairs in New York City, said that “While she embodied the best qualities of a Ford program officer and director, she engendered in all who knew her the deepest admiration and affection. We will always cherish and remember her spirit, candor, humor and wisdom for the rest of our days.”
Her own words form an appropriate backdrop for the many assessments of her motivations and achievements. “We must continue to struggle against racism, sexism and other forms of oppression, not only because it is the right thing to do, although it is,” she said. “We must continue to struggle because to give in and give up is to ensure that all is lost and to betray what we stand for.”
Ms. Huntley is survived by her husband, Walter Huntley; a stepdaughter, Tyeise Huntley Jones, and a brother, Rodney Jones.