Lynn Huntley, 69: Championed education, social justice for the poor

Lynn Jones Huntley’s heart for helping people began as a child observing her parents working to serve others.

Later as a civil rights lawyer, philanthropist and foundation executive, she applied those values in a career devoted to fighting for social justice and education equity for people around the world.

“Lynn was a superb lawyer. She could have gone to a private law firm and made a lot of money,” said longtime friend Elaine Jones, former director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “She was humble, and she cared about people no matter their status. What motivated her was human rights and social justice.”

Huntley died of cancer Aug. 30 at her Atlanta home at the age of 69. Her memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Oct. 16 at Howard University Law School’s Dunbarton Chapel in Washington, D.C.

She was born on Jan. 24, 1946, in Petersburg, Va. Her mother, Mary Cooley Jones, was a Head Start teacher who mailed about 100 handwritten notes a month to encourage church members, friends and family.

Her father, Lawrence N. Jones, was a minister and civil rights activist who served as dean of Howard University’s divinity school and dean of chapel at Fisk University in Nashville.

“My sister’s heart for service was caught from our father,” said her brother Rodney Jones of New York City. “His life was committed to service to God and helping the least of these. From an early age, she was able to see what compassion, love and service looked like.”

After attending Fisk as an early entrant, Huntley graduated from Barnard College. In 1970, she graduated from the Columbia University Law School, where she became the first African-American woman to serve as editor of the Columbia Law Review.

Huntley’s career began as a law clerk for federal judge Constance Baker Motley, who had worked on the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case and became her mentor.

Following in her mentor’s footsteps, she joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund as a staff attorney, handling cases on prison reform, the death penalty, desegregation and job discrimination.

She later worked as a general counsel to the New York City Commission on Human Rights, followed by a stint as deputy assistant attorney general in the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

During her tenure at the Ford Foundation from 1982 to 1994, Huntley rose from program officer to director of the Rights and Social Justice Program, and funded global projects on education, women’s rights and legal defense to protect the rights of minorities and the poor.

In 1995, Huntley turned her focus to education disparities in the American South through her work with the Southern Education Foundation. She became the nonprofit’s first female president in 2002 and raised more than $44 million and doubled its endowment by her retirement in 2010.

She also co-edited the book “Beyond Racism: Race and Inequality in Brazil, South Africa, and the United States.” In 2000, Huntley traveled to Cape Town to present the book and its findings to Nelson Mandela.

Huntley was a member of the Georgia Student Finance Commission and served on the boards of Barnard College, CARE USA, the Center for Women Policy Studies, the Interdenominational Theological Center, the Jesse Ball DuPont Fund and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta.

She received the National Bar Association’s Outstanding Achievement Award, the Thurgood Marshall Award of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, the Lucy Terry Prince Award of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Atlanta Coalition of 100 Black Women’s Unsung Heroine Award.

“What made Lynn so special was that she had a prodigious intellect and an enormous heart,” said Steve Suitts, senior fellow at the Southern Education Foundation. “Lynn was not in this for praise or to impress other people. She felt her purpose in life was to make the world a better place.”

In addition to her brother, Huntley is survived by her husband Walter Huntley of Atlanta and her stepdaughter Tyeise Huntley Jones of Chicago.