Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights-era icon , invoked segregationist Gov. George Wallace of Alabama in accusing John McCain and Sarah Palin of fanning the flames of hatred at Republican campaign events.
"What I am seeing reminds me of too much of another destructive period in American history," Lewis said in a statement released to FOX News. "Senator McCain and Governor Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse."
"George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights," Lewis added. "Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed on Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama."
He then accused McCain and Palin of "playing with fire" in a way that "disregards the value of the political process and cheapens our entire democracy."
McCain immediately responded, calling on Obama to denounce Lewis' statement.
"Congressman John Lewis' comments represent a character attack against Governor Sarah Palin and me that is shocking and beyond the pale," McCain said in a written statement. "The notion that legitimate criticism of Senator Obama's record and positions could be compared to Governor George Wallace, his segregationist policies and the violence he provoked is unacceptable and has no place in this campaign."
The Obama campaign disagreed with Lewis comparing McCain to Wallace but supported his criticism of McCain's character attacks on Obama.
"Sen. Obama does not believe that John McCain or his policy criticism is in any way comparable to George Wallace or his segregationist policies," Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said in a written statement.
"But John Lewis was right to condemn some of the hateful rhetoric that John McCain himself personally rebuked just last night," he added, calling Sarah Palin's charge last Saturday that Obama pals around with terrorists "baseless and profoundly irresponsible."
"As Barack Obama has said himself, the last thing we need from either party is the kind of angry, divisive rhetoric that tears us apart at a time of crisis when we desperately need to come together," Burton said.
For years, McCain has been an admirer of Lewis, including praising him in a book on courage and bravery. McCain cited Lewis as one of "three wise men" he would consult as president during a forum at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in August.