Rep. John Lewis just brought the civil rights era to a new generation

After sit-in ends, Jim Clyburn talks about his friend John Lewis

Outside the U.S. Capitol, Rep. Jim Clyburn, R-S.C. spoke about his friend Rep. John Lewis, who led the 26-hour sit in for gun legislation that ended June 23, 2016.
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Outside the U.S. Capitol, Rep. Jim Clyburn, R-S.C. spoke about his friend Rep. John Lewis, who led the 26-hour sit in for gun legislation that ended June 23, 2016.

On Capitol Hill, for almost 26 hours, the 1960s were back.

Led by Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who’s a hero of the civil rights movement, the dramatic sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to force a vote on gun legislation often had the look and feel of a civil rights-era protest.

“Where is our soul? Where is our moral leadership? Where is our courage?” Lewis shouted Wednesday when he began the sit-in, his preacher’s voice loudly echoing in the House chamber. Brow furrowed, he angrily pounded the podium.

“This is the time,” he cried. “Now is the time to get in the way. The time to act is now. We will be silent no more.”

He paused for a moment, the chamber silent.

“The time for silence is over.”

Remember, in 1960 it was all about trying to get the right to vote. That’s all this is about, here we are again, seeking the right to vote.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.

House Democrats sat on the floor. They sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Their prayers and speeches, with many usually low-key lawmakers adopting Lewis’ fiery tone, were punctuated by call-and-response chants: “No bill!” “No break!”

South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat and another veteran of the movement for racial equality, said it made sense to merge old and new tactics to get things done, pointing out that the struggles had similarities.

“John and I started out the journey in October 1960 seeking the right to vote,” Clyburn said on the House floor. “Here we are again, seeking the right to vote.”

The choice of Lewis to lead the protest was intentional, as lawmakers sought to use to their advantage the images and respect that the civil rights icon would command.

“Leader Pelosi said, ‘You guys can do this but you’d better have somebody leading you who knows what they’re doing,’” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., told McClatchy. “Who would know better than John Lewis?”

The initial idea of holding a news conference was shot down Tuesday by black House Democrats, who were particularly fed up with the relentless gun violence plaguing their communities. A news conference was not enough – they wanted to take a more dramatic stand.

And in the eyes of the public, it worked. Lewis, one of the last surviving civil rights leaders who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and one of the 13 original Freedom Riders, became the face of the sit-in.

The 76-year-old, sitting on the floor longer than most of his younger colleagues as the day wore on, began to blow up on social media. Photos of him at the 1960 Nashville sit-in side by side with Wednesday’s protest went viral online.

Republicans were unimpressed. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., took to Twitter to joke about the tone of the sit-in.

“When House Democrats start singing kumbaya, I might go listen,” he tweeted.

But many millennials, excited by the old-school display of civil disobedience, started tweeting photos of themselves sitting on the floor on solidarity. Supporters gathered outside the Capitol.

Cleaver said Lewis told them about the tactic he had learned from the 1960s: To make the message effective, it has to be direct.

“Lewis said, ‘You know, the civil rights movement was simple. We didn’t make it complicated. We made it simple: ‘This demonstration is about voting,’” Cleaver said.

That’s where the new tactics came in. House Democrats acknowledged on Thursday that the protest might have been largely ignored without the live broadcasting via streaming applications Periscope and Facebook Live. At any given point, at least one lawmaker was broadcasting the sit-in to thousands of online viewers, some picked up by C-SPAN, with aides scurrying to find replacement battery packs when power ran low.

“I don’t think we would have been able to do this without social media,” Clyburn told McClatchy on Thursday.

“I think it was persuasive enough to allow us to live-stream and Periscope and tweet out pictures and video of what took place,” said Rep. André Carson, D-Ind. “Thank God for social media and thank God for technology.”

After Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., reconvened the House on Wednesday evening for a vote on an unrelated issue, chaos reigned. Although the vote went forward, Democrats chanted on the floor, holding up signs with the names of shooting victims and disrupting the vote as much as possible.

“I am prepared – just as I was with John Lewis back in 1960 – I am prepared to stay on this floor all night and tomorrow, if necessary,” Clyburn told MSNBC as the sit-in entered its 11th hour. “I did it for three days one time before. I believe my body can take two days.”

Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., enthusiastically described the sit-in as the start of a “great movement.”

If it were my chamber, it would be cleared and people would be arrested, if that’s what’s necessary to get us back to the task at hand.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., a former state House speaker

“This is the way great movements began,” he told McClatchy. “This is the way the March on Washington started, and Rosa Parks, and all the great movements that we can remember started with just a idea.”

Referring to their younger days as civil rights activists seemed to motivate and energize Lewis, Clyburn and their colleagues through the daylong sit-in.

“The connection was, it is John Lewis,” Ted Deutch, D-Fla., told McClatchy. “He is not just a civil rights icon, but he’s a hero to most of us in the House, and I think he’s a hero to so many Americans.”

“What’s resonating for me as someone who lived through (the civil rights movement) is the combination of violence and prejudice coming back,” said Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Calif. “This is another pivotal moment.”

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, said he went outside in the rain around 6 in the morning on Thursday and ran into a couple who had just driven in from Pennsylvania to support them after seeing Lewis on the live-stream apps.

“Without his leadership you would not have had . . . all of us who stayed up all night doing that,” he said. “You would not have had the American public so energized.”

By the end, 168 House Democrats – out of 188 – and 34 Senate Democrats had joined the protest, according to the office of the House minority leader. Many told McClatchy they thought that looking back to the 1960s had unified Democrats and made the sit-in a success, despite no movement on legislation.

“I think the spirit of the protest is still the same,” Carson said. “And the spirit is to use nonviolent tactics to bring about results . . . bring about the Civil Rights Act, bring about the Voting Rights Act and in this case, we’re talking about bringing a vote to the floor, where we can deal with our gun issues.”

Ryan called it a “publicity stunt” and accused Democrats of using it to boost their fundraising.

“Look at what we’re doing on the House floor. Send us money!” he mocked at his weekly news briefing, waving an email from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee about the protest. “If this is not a political stunt, then why are they trying to raise money off of this, off of a tragedy?”

On the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., referred to the “antics and the theater that’s going on in the House.”

“If it were my chamber, it would be cleared and people would be arrested, if that’s what’s necessary to get us back to the task at hand,” he said.

Republican leaders adjourned the House early Thursday morning, delaying a possible vote on gun control legislation until lawmakers return July 5. Democrats vowed to fight on.

Speaking to a crowd of supporters who had gathered outside the Capitol, many staying there all night, Lewis used his trademark mischievous slogan: “Good trouble.”

“We got in trouble. We got in the way. Good trouble. Necessary trouble. By sitting in, we were really standing up,” he said.

Lindsay Wise, Megan Henney and Eleanor Mueller contributed to this report.

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen