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10 questions for Congressman John Lewis

ATLANTA — John Lewis, 75, has been a Democratic member of the U.S. House for nearly three decades. But he became an American hero two decades earlier as an important ally of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement. At 23, he was the youngest person to address the crowds gathered for the 1963 March on Washington; two years later he was beaten bloody by Alabama law enforcement officers as he led a march for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

Ahead of the 2016 King holiday, I sat down with Lewis in his hometown of Atlanta, at Paschal's Restaurant, the original version of which was a key meeting place to plot strategy for leaders of the civil rights movement. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.

John Harwood interviewing John Lewis in Paschal's Restaurant, Atlanta, GA on January 14, 2016.
Mary Stevens | CNBC
John Harwood interviewing John Lewis in Paschal's Restaurant, Atlanta, GA on January 14, 2016.

HARWOOD: Did Martin Luther King have a signature meal that he always ordered?

LEWIS: Well, Dr. King loved Southern food. You had the fried chicken. You had the smothered chicken. You had barbecue, barbecued ribs. He was not just fixed on one. He loved all food. He loved to eat.

I remember on one occasion when we were traveling through the South, leaving Atlanta by car to Montgomery, or to Birmingham, there would be a little restaurant. It was like a hole in the wall. And he said, "Let's stop and get something to eat. If we get arrested and go to jail, we will go on a full stomach."

HARWOOD: People look at the old news footage — Bloody Sunday, the March on Washington — and everybody sees it in very clear black and white terms now. Right and wrong. Do you see the current chapter of the voting rights debate, which the president made reference to in his State of the Union, with the same black and white clarity?

LEWIS: I do. Even today in places — and they're not just in the American South, but in other parts of our country — people don't want all these people participating. They don't want the low income people, they don't want students, people of color. In places like Pennsylvania, elected officials, are saying, "No, we have a voter ID now." You know, "We can win this election."

We're losing at this moment. I think it's both race and pure politics, because if we open up the process and let everybody come in, the makeup for the Congress, state legislatures, would be altogether different. We shouldn't be afraid of the American people. We should embrace the changes for the future.

HARWOOD: I went back and looked at your speech at the March on Washington. You were the youngest person to speak that day. You were talking about how the movement didn't really have a political party. We have much more clarity between the parties these days. We're much more polarized. Is that better?

LEWIS: I'm not sure whether it's better or not. It's important that the Republican Party, like the Democratic Party, try to reach out. It's in the best interest of all of us. Because in the final analysis we're one people. We're one family.

With the whole history in this country of slavery and segregation, if we get it right in America, we could be a real leader when it comes to issues of race and religion for the rest of the world. I think that's part of our calling. I think it's part of our mission.

"I don't think we should be quick to say everything is based on racism or racist feeling. Look at people as human beings. I just think we all should try to do the right thing and be kind to each other. Try to get along. Try to be a little more human. That's what I'm telling some of my friends, 'Just be human'." -U.S. Rep. John Lewis

HARWOOD: Another thing you said in your speech that I found really interesting — you said that politicians live in a world defined by "immoral compromises." You can hear the exact same thing from members of the tea party today. Do you identify with how they feel?

LEWIS: I understand their feeling, and I think we should recognize people's attitudes. But I don't agree with them. We come from two different worlds.

I also remember when Pope Francis came and spoke to a joint session of the Congress. He said, "Engage in dialogue." And we must never, ever give up on anyone. We must continue to work and try to move toward what we called in the civil rights movement "the building of the beloved community." I think we will get there.

HARWOOD: Tell me what you make, in this political season, of the rise of Donald Trump. Some people have made this argument that the closest analog to Trump we've seen is either somebody like Pat Buchanan, who ran 20 years ago, or even before that, George Wallace. Does that strike you as a reasonable comparison?

LEWIS: I think it is a reasonable comparison. See, I don't think Wallace believed in all of the stuff he was preaching. I think Wallace said a lot of stuff just to get ahead. He used the tools of demagoguery around the issue of race and the federal government tellin' us what to do and how to do it.

I don't think Trump really believes in all this stuff. But he thinks this would be his ticket to the White House. At least to get the Republican nomination for. I think it's ambition.

I never called George Wallace a racist because I never believed that he believed in what he was preaching. But from time to time we have demagogues who emerge. For political reasons they use race, and class, and religion. It's not something in their spirit. It's not in their gut. It's not in their DNA. But they use it.

HARWOOD: What do you make of the argument that there's too much emphasis in our country on political correctness and that people are too quick to use terms like racist?

LEWIS: I don't think we should be quick to say everything is based on racism or racist feeling. Look at people as human beings. I just think we all should try to do the right thing and be kind to each other. Try to get along. Try to be a little more human. That's what I'm telling some of my friends, "Just be human."

"Many of my Republican friends fear where he can take them. They feel that it may mean the destruction of the Republican Party." -U.S. Rep John Lewis on Donald Trump

HARWOOD: When you talk to your friends in Congress who are Republicans, what sense do you think they have of Trump.

LEWIS: Many of my Republican friends fear where he can take them. They feel that it may mean the destruction of the Republican Party.

HARWOOD: We have a new speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, who is emphasizing a different set of issues. He had a summit on poverty. He said he wants to spend a lot of time reaching out to nontraditional constituencies. Do you think he's sincere? And do you think that he can be successful?

LEWIS: I do think Paul Ryan is sincere. He is very smart. He was greatly influenced by the late Jack Kemp. He's a thinker, and I think he's gonna work very hard to try to bring us all together. It is my hope for the sake of the country and for the two party system that he's able to do it.

I think this president can do business with Paul Ryan. I think members of the Democratic side of the aisle feel they can do business with him. They may not agree on everything, but I think there could be compromises.

"The election of Hillary Clinton as the first woman would go a long ways in moving us much farther down that road to creating an America, and maybe a world community, where we forget about not just race but also gender, and see people as people." -U.S. Rep. John Lewis

HARWOOD: I heard a young person, a 30-year-old woman, a couple months ago ask about Hillary Clinton. She said, "With the election of Barack Obama I know that there are now no more barriers in American politics. Does that, in some way, diminish the urgency among women, maybe particularly younger women, to try to break that barrier for Hillary Clinton? Doesn't seem to be the same electricity around that — electing the first woman — as there was around electing the first African-American."

LEWIS: He did tear down the wall — the big one. But it's still important that women be at the table, that women be in charge. Look at all the young girls, young women. For them to have a president, a madam president, that would say to young girls and say to young women, "if Hillary Clinton can do it, I can do it, too."

Maybe they see something in Bernie Sanders that they cannot find, or see, in Hillary Clinton. But I think, just take the long, hard look. I think it's a must that we break the barrier. I think it's in the best interests of the psyche of young girls and young women. The election of Hillary Clinton as the first woman would go a long ways in moving us much farther down that road to creating an America, and maybe a world community, where we forget about not just race but also gender, and see people as people.

HARWOOD: You hear some Republicans say, "Hey, this president promised to bring the country together but he's actually made it more divided by how he has governed." What do you say to that?

LEWIS: I don't think he made it worse. I think there were people because of his election made a conscious decision and said that, "We will not give him a victory. We will not let him succeed." It was the Republican leadership, on the House side as well as the Senate side.

I think Obama's been treated differently because of his race. I really believe that. You wouldn't hear, with a white Democrat or white Republican speaking, someone holler out, "You lie." You wouldn't have a governor putting her finger in the face of a white president like the governor of Arizona did. There have been visible signs of disrespect for the man. And I've always said if you don't respect the man, respect the position.

When the president saw me during the evening of the State of the Union as we're walking down the aisle, he said, "John Lewis, I love you." I said, "Mr. President, I love you, too."