Lynn Walker Huntley (Photo Courtesy of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund)
Lynn Walker Huntley, a towering figure in the ongoing movement for civil and human rights died Aug. 30 at her home in Atlanta after a battle with cervical cancer. She was 69.
Huntley’s storied career included tours as a civil rights lawyer, general counsel to the New York City Commission on Human Rights, Department of Justice official and an administrator in organizations dedicated to human rights and education parity.
As a fledgling lawyer, Huntley served from 1971 to 1973 and from 1975 to 1978 with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. While there, she represented prisoners in the Attica uprising and also helped write the successful brief on behalf of William Furman, in which the Supreme Court declared the death penalty to be cruel and unusual punishment.
Huntley went on to work as an attorney with the Department of Justice, where she helped fight discrimination in employment, housing and federal programs, according to The New York Times. She became the first woman to head the Special Litigation Section in the department’s Civil Rights Division and later advanced to deputy assistant attorney general.
In 1982, Huntley joined the Ford Foundation, a privately-funded organization whose mission is to “strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation and advance human achievement,” according to its website. Huntley worked as a program officer and was promoted several times, ultimately serving as director of its Rights and Social Justice Program. Among several accomplishments there, she helped launch “Eyes on the Prize,” the seminal PBS documentary on the U.S. civil rights movement, and also mentored new generations of activists.
“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,’” recalled Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union who worked with Huntley at Ford for nine years, in a tribute on the Foundation’s website.
“She led us with clarity, resilience, doggedness, intelligence, and elegance,” Romero wrote. “She irrigated and fertilized our souls and spirits with unflinching support, love and the best of humor. We learned to laugh at ourselves, and to learn from our failings. We reveled in her always-ready jokes. And when the laughter subsided, we would once again put our shoulders against the boulders of injustice that stood in the way of those who demanded our help.”
In 1995, Huntley joined the Southern Education Foundation, whose mission is to advance equity and excellence in education for all students in the South, particularly low-income students and students of color. She became its first female president in 2002 and retired in 2010.
“She was first to lead the charge on critical issues here in the American South, in the US, and abroad related to human rights, racism, and equity. And through all this she was most notably humble,” a statement from the Foundation read. “Lynn’s SEF colleagues remember her dedication to helping those most in need, her mentorship, and her fearlessness to tell it like it is. She did all this important and daunting work somehow with a smile, and often a chuckle, that was infectious to everyone around her. She will be missed dearly and our hearts go out to her family and friends.”
Huntley was born Jan. 24, 1946, in Petersburg, Va., to the Rev. Lawrence N. Jones, former dean of Howard University Divinity School for 16 years and an active figure in the Civil Rights Movement, and the former Mary Ellen Cooley.
Huntley attended Fisk University, an HBCU in Tennessee with which her father was once associated, but she transferred to Barnard College in New York City, where she obtained her bachelor’s degree in sociology, according to the Journal for Blacks in Higher Education. She went on to graduate with honors from Columbia Law School, where she served as the first African-American woman editor of the Columbia Law Review.
After law school, Huntley clerked for Judge Constance Baker Motley of the federal District Court in Manhattan, the first Black woman to sit on a federal bench and another leading figure in the Civil Rights Movement.