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The Long History Of Sit-Ins As A Form Of Political Expression

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Earlier today, Democratic House members ended their 25-plus hour sit-in demanding a vote on gun control. Civil rights leader and Georgia Congressman John Lewis led the rare show of protest. As it drew to a close, Lewis nodded to Martin Luther King, Jr, and said...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN LEWIS: By sitting in, we're really standing up...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yeah.

LEWIS: ...For the very best in America.

CORNISH: Republican House Leader Paul Ryan said he wasn't going to buy what the Democrats were selling.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL RYAN: We are not going to allow stunts like this to stop us from carrying out the people's business.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The sit-in is a form of protest with a long legacy, usually associated with the civil rights movement. But David Meyer, a sociology professor at UC Irvine, says it first took hold decades earlier.

DAVID MEYER: The sit-in grew out of the sit-down strike, which came out of the labor movement. In the early 1900s, the International Workers of the World, a trade union, started using sit-down strikes to shut down business and protect its workers and express labor solidarity. The United Auto Workers picked up on the tactic in the 1930s and shut down big factories. The Flint strike is particularly famous. After World War II, activists from the labor movement decided to devote their attention to civil rights, particularly the Highlander Institute.

CORNISH: So you've talked about this being born out of the labor movement. Can you talk about how it was spread or popularized through the civil rights movement?

MEYER: Well lots of activists went through the Highlander Institute, including Martin Luther King, including Rosa Parks. In 1960, four young men at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College stayed up all night talking about desegregating the South. I always imagined them as freshman and dealing with upper classman down the hall saying, oh, you're going to desegregate the South? Well, I think I'm going to study for biology instead.

But the next morning - a Monday morning - they went into a Woolworths, bought office supplies and then sat down at a lunch counter, asking to be served coffee. The lunch counter shut down. The next day, other student activists accompanied them and started spilling over into other restaurants, asking to be served.

By the end of the week, Greensboro was filled up with student activists trying to desegregate public accommodations, and that began a sit-in movement that spread across the United States. The sit-in movement spurred the creation of an organization specifically directed to nonviolent action. It was called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee - called SNIC. And the first executive director of SNIC was John Lewis, who we now see on the floor of the House of Representatives doing something he's done many, many, many times before.

CORNISH: And so it's quite meaningful to you to see Lewis employing this tactic in this very political setting.

MEYER: Absolutely. The sit-in is usually the province of people who are poorly positioned to make change in any other way. And it's hard to think of a member of Congress being so disadvantaged, and the Democratic Party activists in Congress are trying to make that claim. And let's be honest - it's not the same kind of danger that John Lewis faced in 1960. He's not going to get beaten. There aren't going to be dogs on the floor of the House of Representatives. The exciting thing that came in from outside was doughnuts from Senator Warren, so donuts are easier to deal with than attack dogs.

CORNISH: Would you consider this a success? Is there a certain kind of, like, halo that comes with the sit-in - right? - that they're lending to this particular cause?

MEYER: Well, this morning when I was watching TV and listening to the news, everybody was talking about gun control. And when your issues take center stage, then your sit-in is working. The members of Congress sitting on the floor of the House of Representatives have demonstrated their marginalization in the House of Representatives - that the Republicans are able to keep them off the political agenda and that they're not interested in talking about gun control. And TV and radio and newspapers are interviewing parents of survivors of mass shootings. I think that's a win for the Democrats on the floor of the House of Representatives, and I think they're going to be fundraising and campaigning off this for the next five months.

CORNISH: David Meyer is a sociology professor at UC Irvine. Thank you for talking with us.

MEYER: Pleasure to talk with you, Audie.

CORNISH: David Meyer's also author of the book "The Politics Of Protest Social Movements In America." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.