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D.C. Bar Names UDC’s John Brittain as 2024 Thurgood Marshall Award Winner

April 08, 2024

By John Murph

John BrittainThe D.C. Bar has named University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law (UDC Law) professor John Brittain as the recipient of its 2024 Thurgood Marshall Award for his lifelong commitment to advancing civil rights, including litigating important cases across the United States on race equity in public schools and higher education and mentoring generations of civil rights advocates. Brittain will be honored at the Bar’s annual Celebration of Leadership on June 20.

“I just jumped with excitement after being in the law for nearly 55 years to be receiving this award from the D.C. Bar,” said Brittain, who is currently on sabbatical writing a book and his memoir.

Born and raised in Norwalk, Connecticut, Brittain attended Howard University for both his undergraduate and law degrees. While at Howard, Brittain became a principal research assistant to professor Herbert O. Reid, his mentor at Howard who litigated and won the case Powell v. McCormack. The 1969 case involved U.S. House of Representatives Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who had been elected to serve but was denied a seat in the 90th Congress following a scandal. At the time, Reid reportedly told Brittain to “keep one foot in the classroom teaching in the law school, and the other foot in the courtroom litigating civil rights cases.”

After finishing law school in 1969, Brittain worked for two years with the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services in Oxford, Mississippi, litigating school desegregation and other civil rights cases. He represented the 81 students arrested after the February 25, 1970, protests at the University of Mississippi, including the “Ole Miss Eight.” He moved to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1971 to work for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a public interest law organization founded by President John F. Kennedy to enlist private lawyers in taking pro bono cases in civil rights.

Between 1973 and 1977, Brittain worked in private practice in San Francisco, returning to Connecticut afterward and becoming the first Black faculty member at the University of Connecticut School of Law (UConn Law). While teaching at the law school, Brittain also served as lead counsel in the 1996 Connecticut Supreme Court case Sheff v. O’Neill challenging school segregation in the city of Hartford.

Brittain taught at UConn Law for 22 years before becoming a professor at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University from 1999 to 2005 (serving as dean from 1999 to 2002).

He returned to Washington, D.C., in 2005 to serve as chief counsel and senior deputy director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. In 2009 he joined UDC Law as a tenured professor and served as acting dean from 2018 to 2019.

In 2013 the North Carolina Central University School of Law named Brittain the Charles Hamilton Houston Chair, a role in which he brought prominent civil rights professors and litigators to the law school to teach constitutional and civil rights for a year.

Throughout his career, Brittain has worked on several U.S. Supreme Court cases relating to civil rights in higher education, including Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, both decided in 2007. Most recently he served as cocounsel representing private plaintiffs in a 15-year-long federal lawsuit against Maryland for denying its historically Black institutions of higher learning — Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore — “comparable and competitive” opportunities compared to the state’s other universities. The case settled in 2021 with the state agreeing to remedy violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Brittain has written extensively about civil rights and human rights issues, particularly as they relate to education law. Some of his most recent published articles include “Reducing Reliance on Testing to Promote Diversity” in the 2014 book The Future of Affirmative Action: New Paths to Higher Education Diversity After Fisher v. University of Texas; “Maryland Lawsuit Is Hardly ‘Unusual’” (coauthored with John K. Pierre), a January 2012 letter to the editor in The Chronicle of Higher Education; and “Admitting the Truth: The Effects of Affirmative Action, Legacy Preference and Meritocratic Ideal on Students of Color in College Admissions” in the 2010 book Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions.

Though Brittain has focused much of his civil rights work on education, he believes that voting rights are also paramount. “It’s time now to court voting [rights] the most because voting is power,” Brittain said. “In this era of the 2020s, we are going backwards. There’s an attack on all fundamental civil rights. It’s like pre-1950 before we went into the civil rights movement.”

“We have to stand up and stand strong, particularly in this [U.S.] presidential race for the people to be able to vote and not be restricted based upon their color or lack of income,” Brittain added.

For his advocacies, the NAACP presented Brittain in 1993 the William Robert Ming Advocacy Award, which honors lawyers who exemplify “the spirit of financial and personal sacrifice that Ming displayed” in their pro bono legal work for the NAACP. In 2015 the Mississippi Center for Justice honored Brittain as a “pioneering civil rights leader and esteemed law professor who has inspired a generation of young attorneys.”

Brittain is also active in the legal community, serving as president of the National Lawyers Guild between 1991 and 1993 and in various roles in ACLU’s national board.

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