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A walk down freedom street: A tribute to Lynn Walker Huntley

Above: Lynn Walker Huntley (top row, second from right, in blue shirt) with Ford Foundation colleagues in 1990.

Lynn Walker Huntley, a champion of civil rights and esteemed member of the Ford Foundation family, passed away this weekend. We lost her far too soon. I worked with Lynn closely during her years at the Ford Foundation, and so I know firsthand that her tenure was distinguished by creativity, vision, idealism, and good-humor—all in the pursuit of justice. Her accomplishments will outlive her, continuing to make ours a better world for many years to come.

Lynn was the first African American woman editor of the Columbia Law Review. She clerked for federal judge Constance Baker Motley, also a leading figure in the civil rights movement. As a young lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, she represented prisoners in the Attica uprising, and helped pen the winning Supreme Court brief that declared the death penalty to be cruel and unusual punishment. Following her tenure with the LDF, she was tapped to be the first African American woman section chief at the U.S. Department of Justice, and was subsequently promoted to serve as deputy assistant attorney general.

Lynn came to the Ford Foundation in 1982 to serve as program officer for civil rights under the leadership of Franklin A. Thomas. She arrived, with her decades of experience working on civil rights and social justice, at a critical juncture in the history of civil rights, when the “Reagan revolution” was threatening to unravel years of progress toward racial justice and equality. She was promoted several times, ultimately serving as director of the foundation’s Rights and Social Justice program, before leaving in 1995 after 13 years of distinguished service. And Lynn didn’t stop there: She joined the Southern Education Foundation to direct its Comparative Human Relations Initiative, a study of race, poverty and inequality in Brazil, South Africa and the United States. She later served for eight years as president of that foundation, which focused on improving education for low-income students. Under her leadership, it was the South’s only public charity directed by an African American.

But Lynn’s legacy is much greater than can be captured by a chronicle of her many accomplishments and accolades. Lynn was truly special. She was a woman with a towering intellect, which she assiduously deployed to make the world a better place. The groundbreaking programs she started at Ford continue to make a difference in civil and human rights to this day. She created the African American Church Initiative, realizing from the career of her beloved father, Rev. Lawrence Neal Jones, that the African American church was a bulwark of strength and resilience worthy of private philanthropic support. She launched an initiative on minorities and the media, which endeavored to address distorted portrayals of racial and ethnic minorities in the media, and their underrepresentation in media professions. Lynn provided vital support to minority elected and appointed officials, so that they could better discharge their duties and represent their constituents. She created a Hispanic leadership program, and deepened the foundation’s engagement with immigrant rights at a moment of severe xenophobic backlash. She helped launch Eyes on the Prize, the seminal documentary on the U.S. civil rights movement.

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. She hired a young Emmett Carson, who went on to head the Silicon Valley Community and Minneapolis foundations. She tapped Mary McClymont, who now heads the Public Welfare Foundation, to scale up the foundation’s work on immigrant rights. She found an emerging leader in Mora McLean, who later headed up the Africa America Institute working on U.S.-Africa relations. She hired Marcia Smith, who later served as vice president of Atlantic Philanthropies, and helped produce award-winning documentaries. Reverend Robert Franklin accepted the call to work for Lynn, long before he was tapped to head Morehouse College. And she hired me two years out of law school to serve as program officer for civil rights.

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. 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.

During my nine years at Ford, I was fortunate to have incredible learning opportunities and experiences. Foremost among them was the opportunity to work with Lynn Walker Huntley, and I know many foundation staff and grantees, past and present, feel likewise and mourn her death.

On her deathbed, Lynn told two good friends, “I will see you on Freedom Street.” And then she began to hum the words to the old Kenneth Boothe reggae song. Listen to it and sing along in tribute to a brilliant freedom fighter who will be fiercely missed, even as her influence is keenly felt.