Civics Lessons From the House Democrats' Sit-In

The protest teaches kids about media literacy, the legislative process, and the repercussions of prolonged congressional gridlock.

Representative John Lewis and other House Democrats on Capitol Hill after they ended their sit-in protest (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

Whether the Democrats’ sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to protest congressional inaction on gun-control legislation was a publicity stunt or a tipping point remains to be seen. But the episode last week could serve as a teachable moment for the nation’s schoolchildren—and future voters.

The sit-in itself was a confrontational tactic, amounting to a 25-hour filibuster. But when C-SPAN’s on-floor cameras were briefly turned off, some Democratic lawmakers violated House rules and pulled out their cellphones to live-stream the ongoing protest using Twitter’s Periscope app.

Having the protest carried out in the digital language of texts and tweets is something most of the nation’s students can relate to, said Professor Emilye Crosby of SUNY-Geneseo, whose research focuses on the U.S. civil-rights movement and African American history. It also was potentially a moment illustrating that “sometimes there are things that are more important than the existing rules, in that the existing rules may not be serving people very well,” said Crosby.

Indeed, Georgia Representative John Lewis, a Democratic civil-rights pioneer and leader of the recent House sit-in, told CNN:

Sometimes you have to violate a rule of law to uphold a greater law, a moral law. We have a right to stand up, to speak up, to speak out. We have a right to sit down, or to sit-in, to engage in nonviolent protest. It is always right to do right.

Students also have be aware of the potential legal consequences—such as fines or even jail time—to their actions, Crosby said.

“One of the challenges for teachers is how do you help students think about ‘when is civil disobedience or defiance productive and necessary?’” she said.

The protest by Democratic lawmakers itself is unlikely to have sustained impact. And the two bills they were attempting to bring to the House floor for debate have been criticized as inadequate and misdirected efforts to address the nation’s gun-violence crisis. But the sit-in could turn out to be a “first step rather than an end point,” Crosby said.

There have been in inevitable comparisons with other examples of civil disobedience by American citizens protesting the nation’s status quo, and Crosby said this is where context is particularly important for students. (It’s worth pointing out that lawmakers have previously ruffled feathers with on-the-floor protests. Among them: Representative Bobby Rush, an lllinois Democrat, wore a hoodie during a 2012 House speech to protest the shooting death of Treyvon Martin, violating the rules against wearing hats.)

In the 1960s, the lunch-counter sit-ins—like the ones Representative Lewis helped organize in Nashville, Tennessee—were “simultaneously radical and conservative,” Crosby said.

“The issue of desegregating public accommodations didn’t really get at the entrenched economic inequality of political disenfranchisement,” she pointed out. But those tactics helped to force a broader national conversation on civil rights and spur action on a previously unseen scale.

That the Democrats relied on nontraditional social media to spread their message is a key element, Crosby said, because of the ways it overlaps with the tactics of other recent protests like the Black Lives Matter movement that have appealed to many K-12 and college-age students. But in this case, it was individuals closer to “the establishment”—i.e., congressional representatives—who took advantage of the relatively unfiltered means of communication.

That aspect also resonated with Peter Levine, the director of the Center for Information on Civics Learning and Education at Tufts University. From a school curriculum standpoint, the sit-in could be useful as part of broader lessons about media literacy, the legislative process, and the repercussions of prolonged congressional gridlock, he said.

Indeed, a central goal of civics education is to cultivate a generation of informed voters who are fluent in the American way of governance. (Some education historians, like New York University’s Jonathan Zimmerman, have argued that the incivility of the current election cycle is a direct result of the dwindling emphasis on civics education.)

Levine noted that Americans’ support for stricter gun-control measures has been inching upward in national polls (although the public remains divided according to one survey conducted just a few days after the Orlando nightclub massacre). But that’s far from enough to force lawmakers to take up a debate on the issue, and “kids should know that you can have a popular idea that doesn’t pass because of the way Congress is managed or run,” Levine says.

“Civics education sometimes gives a sanitized view of the government and how a bill gets passed, when the actual process is a lot messier than that,” Levine said. “It’s important for students to not only know how the three branches of government are supposed to work, but the real influences of money and lobbying on how representatives ultimate vote, and how the majority party controls the legislative agenda.”

The sit-in could also prompt classroom conversations about what constitutes appropriate discourse in the political arena, he added, noting that the Democrats’ claims that the Republicans were essentially arming terrorists was considered by some to be inflammatory rhetoric.

But the biggest lessons from the sit-in might never reach students, Levine said, at least not through classroom instruction.

In addition to the limited emphasis on civics education in public schools these days, there’s a reluctance among some educators to wade into controversial political waters. In a survey of high school civics teachers a few years ago, one in four said they believed parents and other adults in their communities would be upset if the 2012 presidential election had become fodder for classroom discussion. (Another 22 percent “were on the fence” as to whether it would have been controversial, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, Levine said.)

“Civics is not on any kind of high-stakes test, and it’s not specifically in most state (academic) standards beyond some basic expectations to make kids aware of current events,” Levine said. “There’s no big incentive to go there—except that it’s good teaching practice, and the right thing to do.”

This article appears courtesy of the Education Writers Association.