Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. championed both racial and economic justice during his lifetime, and in the five decades since King’s assassination, no one has pursued that dual agenda more faithfully and consistently than civil rights attorney and law professor John C. Brittain.

John Brittain has had a brilliant career as the first Black tenured law professor at the University of Connecticut, a chief counsel of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and an architect of Connecticut’s landmark Sheff v. O’Neill school desegregation case, which created the nation’s most important urban–suburban school integration program. His many accomplishments were celebrated in a moving ceremony at the University of Connecticut Law School Thursday.

In my own comments at the ceremony, I highlighted my good friend John’s unwavering support for King’s belief that economic justice was the next great struggle in the fight for civil rights and democracy. In asking the rhetorical question—“What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”—King recognized that the second phase of the civil rights movement had to address economic barriers to advancement.

Throughout his half-century year career in civil rights since graduating from Howard Law School in 1969, John Brittain has never forgotten that insight. King is rightly best remembered for his dream of racial justice, but after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, King made a decision—highly controversial within the civil rights movement—to launch what he called his second great dream: A Poor People’s Campaign that would unite disadvantaged people across racial lines. King and his advisor Bayard Rustin called for a multiracial Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged as an answer to the nation’s history of slavery and segregation.

Like King, John Brittain has always seen twin enemies in poverty and racism. That was especially true when he brought his most famous piece of litigation, Sheff v. O’Neill, challenging racial and economic segregation of Hartford, Connecticut public school students. By the late 1980s, when Sheff was filed, the U.S. Supreme Court’s grand decision in Brown v. Board of Education had been undercut by a number of subsequent Supreme Court decisions. In the 1970s, an increasingly conservative Court held that de facto segregation did not violate the Constitution, which meant, under most circumstances, that affluent white suburbs were exempt from urban school desegregation efforts. And federal court-ordered desegregation was beginning to wind down nationally.

John and his colleagues devised an ingenious way to surmount this limitation by suing in state court, rather than federal court, to suggest that de facto segregation, along lines of both race and class, was a violation of the affirmative state constitutional obligation to provide equal opportunity in education.

John knew that the research evidence on educational outcomes suggested that racial segregation was damaging to education, but that school poverty concentrations were especially harmful. A racially segregated school that had an economic mix of students was troubling, but a racially segregated school that had poverty concentrations as well was much worse. In the Sheff case, John observed, plaintiffs offered “a new theory of unequal educational opportunity due to its high concentration of poor children in an urban school district.” From an educational standpoint, John told Harper’s Magazine, “the most signal fact about Hartford is not that it’s 92 percent nonwhite but that it’s 63 percent poor.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. championed both racial and economic justice during his lifetime, and in the five decades since King’s assassination, no one has pursued that dual agenda more faithfully and consistently than civil rights attorney and law professor John C. Brittain.

In its 1996 decision in Sheff, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that de facto racial segregation is illegal. The decision was groundbreaking because it suggested that the state constitution went further than the federal constitution and would require a desegregation remedy between city and suburb. In the coming years, John Brittain and others would fight to vindicate that right. Hartford, which is among the nation’s poorest cities, and is surrounded by some of the nation’s wealthiest suburbs, created a national model for urban–suburban integration. The Sheff plan has provided thousands of low-income and Black and Hispanic Hartford students the chance to attend high-performing suburban schools and has provided thousands of white and more affluent suburban children the chance to attend high-quality integrated magnet schools in the city of Hartford. Researchers found that in Hartford’s integrated magnet schools, the test scores of students on math and reading assessments have increased compared with students who wanted to be in the program but were unable to because of space constraints.

The Sheff court did not rule on John’s novel claim that class segregation was also a violation of the state constitution, but in an irony of history, the Sheff remedy ultimately worked its way back to the issues of economic segregation that John raised years earlier. As I outline below, John’s emphasis on socioeconomic diversity turned out to be not only educationally sound but also legally prescient.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the use of race in school integration plans in Seattle and Louisville. John rightly opposed the wrong-headed ruling. But the result was that school districts shifted the basis of school integration plans from race to class as a legally viable way of promoting both socioeconomic and racial integration. Whereas only two school districts considered socioeconomic status as a factor in school assignment decisions in 1996, by 2020, 171 did according to a Century Foundation report by Halley Potter and Michelle Burris.

I worked with John Brittain and our colleague Michael Alves on one such plan in Charlotte–Mecklenburg, North Carolina. Charlotte had one of the nation’s most successful racial desegregation plans in the 1970s and 1980s, but in 2001, a court ended the plan and Charlotte schools re-segregated. Student test scores and graduation rates declined. Research from Harvard’s Raj Chetty showed that Charlotte was dead last in social mobility among fifty major American cities.

To their credit, Charlotte officials decided to revive school integration—this time based on a student’s socioeconomic status. John, Michael, and I were brought in to devise a plan that would improve racial and socioeconomic diversity without running afoul of the courts. I will never forget when the three of us in November 2016 were present for the Charlotte school board’s vote on its socioeconomic integration plan for its magnet schools. The vote happened to occur on the day after the election of Donald Trump, when many of us were feeling despondent about the chances of racial and economic justice, and yet here was the Charlotte School Board voting unanimously to approve a socioeconomic school integration plan. John joked that he had gone from suing school districts to working with them.

Meanwhile, back in Connecticut, supporters of Hartford’s highly successful school desegregation plan were aghast when the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation challenged the Sheff v. O’Neill remedy for using race in student assignment. But Connecticut was able to neuter the suit by reviving John’s early emphasis on poverty concentrations to shift the student assignment algorithm to consider socioeconomic status. Pacific Legal Foundation soon thereafter dropped its legal challenge.

Outside of the K–12 school integration arena, John Brittain has proved a marvelous partner to The Century Foundation in honoring King’s twin goals of racial and economic justice. In 2012, John became an important member of a Century Foundation Task Force on Preventing Community Colleges from Becoming Separate and Unequal. John, drawing upon lessons for Brown v. Board of Education, called out growing economic and racial stratification between two-year and four-year colleges and helped the group make recommendations on how to bridge those divides.

Around the same time, John joined forces with Century to challenge another inequality in higher education: the use of legacy preferences in college admissions. He coauthored a chapter in a book Century published called Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions on the ways in which this form of ancestry discrimination in higher education disproportionately harms low-income students and students of color. While some civil rights leaders were cautious about raising the issue because they were allied with universities on other matters, John argued it was important to challenge preferences for the wealthy as wrong.

John also was a big part of Century’s campaign to make labor organizing a civil right. John lobbied fellow members of the civil rights community to overcome initial reluctance about protecting workers from being fired for organizing a union with the same remedies found in the Civil Rights Act. And when Keith Ellison and John Lewis introduced legislation to create such a right in 2014, John was a major voice at the press conference. As John often is fond of saying, civil rights and labor, and racial and economic justice, are like the two wings of a bird. If one is missing, the bird cannot fly.

Finally, John Brittain has always emphasized the need to bring working-class people of all races together in a political coalition for change, despite the difficulties of doing so. In his forward to a Century Foundation report in 2020 on “How Progressives Can Recapture Seven Deeply Held Values,” John quoted Bobby Kennedy on the need to convince Black people and poor whites “that they have common interests.” As frustrated as he is with working-class white voters who support racist politicians, John has always thought progressives should fight divide-and-conquer politics.

John Brittain is by no means the only civil rights leader who has made sure that economic justice is a piece of the larger civil rights movement. Leaders like Reverend William Barber, who has revived the Poor People’s Campaign in the twenty-first century, also recognize that poverty, along with racism, needs to be fought. But over a remarkably fifty-five year career in civil rights, John Brittain has done as much as anyone to consistently and faithfully keep the candles lit on behalf of both of Dr. King’s compelling dreams.