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Civil rights icon: We must break barriers again in '16

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ATLANTA — Rep. John Lewis, the Democratic congressman who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., hears echoes of old civil rights struggles in the politics of 2016.

The rhetoric of Donald Trump against illegal immigrants and Muslims, Lewis says, reminds him of Alabama Gov. George Wallace in more ways than one. "It is a reasonable comparison," Lewis said in an interview in Atlanta. "I don't think Wallace believed in all of the stuff he was preaching. ... He used the tools of demagoguery around the issue of race."

Similarly, "I don't think Trump really believes in all this stuff," he added. "But he thinks this would be his ticket to the White House — at least you to get the Republican nomination."

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

At the same time, Lewis sees more hopeful signs in the Republican Party whose members tell him they fear Trump could destroy the GOP. It comes in the form of Paul Ryan, the new, young House speaker from Wisconsin who vows to reach out to blacks and Hispanics using issues of economic opportunity.

"I do think Paul Ryan is sincere," Lewis said at Paschal's Restaurant, the modern-day version of the eatery where he, King and others once plotted civil rights strategy. "He is very smart. He was greatly influenced by the late Jack Kemp.

"He's a thinker, and I think he's going to 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."

It's a must that we break the barrier.
Rep. John Lewis on electing Hillary Clinton.

In many ways, the aspiration of the civil rights movement was realized with the election of Barack Obama as the nation's first African-American president in 2008. But Lewis wants 2016 to break the gender barrier at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with the election of his long-time ally Hillary Clinton.

"It's a must that we break the barrier," Lewis said. "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."

At the moment, Clinton is struggling with weak support among younger women in her battle against Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont for the Democratic nomination. It bewilders Lewis, who said: "Maybe they see something in Bernie Sanders that they cannot find, or see, in Hillary Clinton."

Beyond presidential politics, Lewis continues to battle attempts to roll back advances in voting rights. Lately that has taken the form of Democratic attempts to make registering and voting easier, while Republicans warning of fraud insist on voter identification requirements and more limited periods of pre-election day voting.

"We're losing at this moment," he acknowledged. "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 and state legislatures would be altogether different.

"We shouldn't be afraid of the American people," he concluded. "We should embrace the changes for the future."