From mentee to mentor through a career long transition, John C. Brittain is no stranger to growth in the civil rights legal field. His boundless background began when he received his Bachelor of the Arts degree in political science at Howard University from 1962 to 1966. Immediately following, he earned his JD degree at Howard University Law School from 1966-1969. In law school, he was surrounded by many of the prominent civil rights leaders. His mentor was Herbert O. Reid, one of the original lawyers in the Brown v. Board case. The influence of these powerful figures, combined with his involvement in the anti-war, women’s liberation and anti-poverty movements, led him to become a civil rights lawyer after law school.
With his extensive background in litigating services as a civil rights and poverty lawyer at the North Mississippi Civil Rights Program in Oxford, MS, Brittain was invited to work at the Jackson, Mississippi Lawyers’ Committee Litigation Office. Brittain next joined the faculty at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University at Houston as a professor and later as dean. When Brittain was a senior professor, Barbara Arnwine, former Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, invited Brittain to join the Lawyers’ Committee as Senior Deputy Director and Chief Counsel.
Brittain remembers his experiences both at the Mississippi Lawyers’ Committee and the National Lawyers’ Committee as connected. In Mississippi, his best experience was working with Frank Parker, a well known veteran civil rights lawyer and an expert on voting rights. Brittain attributes learning how to be a civil rights litigator through working with Parker and many other civil rights lawyers in Mississippi. When Brittain came to the national location in Washington, DC, he led a legal team with Schulte Roth and Zabel LLC and Lawyers’ Committee lawyers in bringing a case on behalf of McWaters against FEMA, thereby successfully helping thousands of people displaced from their housing due in Hurricane Katrina in 2005. This was a federal district court decision, well documented in LC history.
Brittain, now Acting Dean and Professor of Law at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, continues to work closely with current Lawyers’ Committee staff members. He considers the history of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law unique from the beginning, given it was created in 1963 by former President John F. Kennedy asking large law firms to commit to more pro bono civil rights cases. He reflects proudly on the service that the Lawyers Committee has provided for more than five decades, including the promotion of civil rights in litigation and public education to the federal, state, and local governments and the general public.