A Tribute to Lynn Walker Huntley

September 16, 2015

Human rights advocates have lost a powerful champion in Lynn Walker Huntley, who died on August 30, 2015. Lynn led a remarkable life that was cut short much too early. I knew her best from her time at the Ford Foundation, where she worked for 13 years and ultimately directed the foundation’s Rights and Social Justice Program. But Lynn’s legacy is broader. She had a profound impact on the evolution of the modern human rights movement, excelling in three careers that changed our society and the world.

First, in the early 1970s, she established herself as a major figure in the U.S. civil rights movement. Lynn authored the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s persuasive Supreme Court brief in Furman v. Georgia, the landmark death penalty case in which the Court ordered a halt to all capital punishment in the United States. Advocates thought this victory marked the end of the death penalty in this country. But states subsequently found ways to circumvent the Court’s ruling and to reintroduce capital punishment, which is a stark reminder that the struggle for rights is ongoing. Drawing on her experience at the LDF, Lynn joined the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, where she did an outstanding job as Deputy Assistant Attorney General, overseeing federal litigation challenging discrimination in employment and housing.

In her second career, Lynn joined the Ford Foundation in 1982. Building on the foundation’s long involvement in civil rights, she supported legal advocacy, but also recognized the need for greater public education and engagement. She helped underwrite “Eyes on the Prize,” the extraordinary PBS documentary series that examined the struggle for civil rights in the United States. She also took a growing interest in global human rights issues and the links between the civil rights movement in the United States and the struggle for international human rights. In the United States, these two communities were surprisingly atomized for many years, and Lynn was instrumental in bridging that divide.

In her third career, Lynn moved to Atlanta to head the Southern Education Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving educational performance for children in the South, especially from poor families. While there, she also directed an ambitious study on human rights issues in the United States, Brazil and South Africa. She kindly invited me to join the group, which included human rights advocates from these three countries and brought home the common challenges vulnerable populations face in dramatically different countries. The study underscored the need for advocates in each society to develop local strategies and actions that resonate in their own communities.

At one of our meetings in Cape Town, I vividly remember watching Lynn lead and shape this dynamic group, allowing lively engagement and debate, but also directing a process that yielded concrete findings and recommendations. There, as in everything she did, Lynn was a force of nature, highly committed, strong and fair, but also disciplined and tough-minded. She held herself and those around her to a very high standard. She recognized that the fight for rights is, as someone once said, not a sport for the short winded. These are struggles where intelligence, perseverance and excellence are essential, and throughout her career, she exemplified these qualities.

Lynn Walker Huntley has left us too early and at a time when the issues to which she dedicated her life and career need the kind of smart and dedicated advocacy she brought to the table. We will miss her greatly.


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