WASHINGTON – John Lewis revived Wednesday one of the most evocative forms of protest from the civil rights movement — the sit-in — to demand House Republicans move on gun control.
In a move rich with historic symbolism, the civil rights icon and Democratic congressman from Georgia led a dramatic protest inside the House of Representatives. He and fellow Democrats sat down at the front of the chamber in an unusual demonstration of civil disobedience challenging Republican Speaker Paul Ryan.
“Sometimes you have to do something out of the ordinary. Sometimes you have to make a way out of no way. We have been too quiet for too long,” Lewis said. “There comes a time when you have to say something, when you have to make a little noise, when you have to move your feet. This is the time. Now is the time to get in the way. The time to act is now. We will be silent no more.”
Lewis was sent encouragement by one former president and the current one.
“Thank you John Lewis for leading on gun violence where we need it most,” President Barack Obama tweeted.
In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Lewis said “too many of our children, too many of our sisters and brothers, our mothers and fathers, our friends, our cousins are dying by guns and we have to do something about it.”
He said lawmakers would remain on the floor.
“We don’t have any intention of leaving anytime soon,” Lewis said.
The sit-in follows the shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub earlier this month that killed 49 people — the deadliest incident of gun violence in American history. The shooting is renewing the debate over gun control legislation, which seems poised to go nowhere in Congress. The Senate blocked several gun measures Monday even as a CNN/ORC poll this week found that public support for changes such as tighter background checks hovers around 90%.
Ryan didn’t commit to holding a vote.
“The House cannot operate without members following the rules of the institution, so the House has recessed subject to the call of the chair,” his spokesman AshLee Strong said in a statement.
Several Republicans congressman criticized the sit-in as a political stunt.
“Calling this a sit-in is a disgrace to Woolworth’s,” Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina tweeted. “They sat-in for rights. Dems are ‘sitting-in’ to strip them away.”
Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan tweeted, “Democrats are staging a sit-in on the House floor. They refuse to leave until our Constitution replaces due process with secret lists.”
Lewis, 76, perhaps the most prominent of the 1960s-era civil rights leaders still alive, is sometimes called the “Conscience of the U.S. Congress” and attracts wide bipartisan respect for his role and moral example in the struggle to end racial segregation.
He organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters after being inspired to join Martin Luther King Jr.’s crusade for equality and eventually led the mass march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on Bloody Sunday in 1965, one of the epochal events in American history. Lewis was beaten so badly by Alabama state troopers that they fractured his skull.
On Wednesday, the group of lawmakers chanted from the floor: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired!” and “No bill, no break!” while the House remained in recess.
As the sit-in gathered momentum, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, a prominent gun control advocate following the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012, walked over and joined the sit-in. The lawmaker led a nearly 15-hour filibuster in the Senate last week asking lawmakers to vote on gun reform. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren also joined the group.
Former President Bill Clinton tweeted his encouragement, writing, “This is leadership” and linking to Lewis’ tweet about the sit-in.
Ohio Rep. Joyce Beatty, who exited the chamber briefly, told CNN that Democrats planned to stay “as long as we need to — all day, all night.”
As of mid afternoon on Wednesday more than 100 House Democrats took part in the sit-in and a steady stream of Senate Democrats walked across the Capitol to join in the protest.
Pelosi joined a couple dozen gun control activists on the steps of the Capitol and vowed Democrats would continue until the speaker scheduled a vote.
One activist, a mother who held a picture of her daughter who was killed in a gun incident, urged people to call the speaker’s office, and said he was listening to the gun lobby instead of citizens.
“Green paper is more valuable than red blood,” the activist shouted, suggesting contributions from gun rights groups were influencing GOP leaders’ decisions.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the lawmakers participating in the sit-in were showing the kind of “frustration and even anger that people around the country have about the inability of the Republican-led Congress to take common sense steps that would protect the American people.”
“I think they’re resorting to what I think even they would acknowledge is an extraordinary step to change the status quo in the House of Representatives that prevents even consideration of common sense gun safety legislation.”
South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, who was very vocal about the need for gun control following the Charleston Massacre, lead lawmakers in prayer for gun violence victims.
The U.S. House controls the cameras on its floor, so live video footage was not available during the sit-in, which occurred while the House was in recess, though many lawmakers tweeted images or streamed live video via Smartphones.