TALLAHASSEE - The Rev. Jesse Jackson's surprise appearance Tuesday at the Capitol sit-in was enough to take some protesters' breath away.
"Whoa," said Kaylee Rodall, who will be a senior at Sandalwood High School in Jacksonville. "I mean, he is the civil-rights movement."
The 71-year-old Jackson, a confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said he came to Tallahassee because he shares the concerns of protesters. His visit came soon after an appearance by singer and rights advocate Harry Belafonte this past weekend.
Dozens of students and others have occupied the Florida Capitol around the clock since the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the February 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford. The sit-in is beginning its third week.
"These students are so morally right, they have such outstanding discipline, that they deserve support," Jackson said. He wore a black T-shirt with the logo of the Dream Defenders, the student group organizing the sit-in.
Jackson planned to be the first dignitary to spend the night with the group: "Wherever they're sleeping is where I'm sleeping," he said.
Organizers also said they now have the votes of enough lawmakers to bypass Gov. Rick Scott and petition Secretary of State Ken Detzner - a Scott appointee - for a special session.
Under state law, if 32 legislators ask for a special session in writing, the secretary can poll all 160 members of the Legislature. But three-fifths must then agree to a special session.
Protesters have demanded that Scott call lawmakers back to the capital to revisit the state's "stand your ground" law and consider a Trayvon Martin Civil Rights Act. Zimmerman did not invoke 'stand your ground' to seek a dismissal of the charges against him, but provisions from the law were used in the instructions given to jurors.
Sit-in participants also want to combat racial profiling and zero-tolerance policies they said feed the "schools-to-prisons" pipeline.
Tuesday marked the first of what Dream Defenders are calling the "People's Session," a series of workshops on their issues. Discussion groups met in the old Capitol and in Scott's reception area, the protest's ground zero.
On July 18, Scott met with some of the group's members and refused the request for a special session, saying he supports the state's self-defense laws. He was out of town Tuesday at jobs announcement in Orlando.
Jackson has supported Martin's parents, calling for a boycott of Florida because of its "stand your ground" law.
He also met recently with Marissa Alexander, the Jacksonville woman sentenced to 20 years for firing a warning shot at her husband. A judge denied her request to claim self-defense under the "stand your ground" law.
Jackson, speaking to a group of protesters in the Capitol courtyard, called the movement's opponents "the new Confederates": "They have an ideology, and it is anti-civil rights, anti-gender equality, anti-worker rights."
He added that "stand your ground" laws "incentivize killing people," adding that "this madness has to stop. This is not the best of America.
"More people in Florida believe in what you are saying than don't believe it," Jackson said. "Make room for more people. I want artists and athletes to come and stay at least one night.
"This is heavy lifting," he added. "I know that Dr. King smiles from heaven at you. He believed in this kind of consciousness, this kind of dignity."