Black lawmakers in New Jersey have sharply criticized Republican Gov. Chris Christie for comparing a ballot referendum on gay marriage to the civil rights movement thusly: “The fact of the matter is, I think people would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets in the South.”
On Thursday, New Jersey Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D) released a statement decrying Christie’s comments, saying that he’d “better sit down with some of New Jersey’s great teachers for a history lesson, because his puzzling comment shows a complete misunderstanding about the civil rights movement.”
Christie said on Tuesday that rather than pass a marriage equality bill in the New Jersey legislature — which is looking more and more likely — the state should put a referendum on the November ballot and “let the people decide.”
Christie, who has said that he would veto a marriage equality bill from the legislature if it reached his desk, said that there’s nothing “so special about this particular issue that it must be handled by a legislature.” According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, he added: “The fact of the matter is, I think people would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets in the South.”
The comment outraged many African-American leaders in the state, who pointed out that such a referendum never would have passed in the south during the 60s — and that many black people were also disenfranchised at the time.
“People were fighting and dying in the streets of the South for a reason,” Oliver said. “They were fighting and dying in the streets of the South because the majority refused to grant minorities equal rights by any method. It look legislative action to bring justice to all Americans, just as legislative action is the right way to bring marriage equality to all New Jerseyans.”
“The governor’s comment is an insult to those who had no choice but to fight and die in the streets for equal rights,” she added.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) had a similar take. “Dear God, we should not be putting civil rights issues to a popular vote, to be subject to the sentiments, the passions of the day. No minority should have their rights subject to the passions and the sentiments of the majority. This is the fundamental bedrock of what our nation stands for.”
Jerome Harris, chairman of the New Jersey Black Issues Convention, told the Star-Ledger: “The 1965 Voting Rights act was enacted to overcome the systemic, intentional racial suppression of the black vote. It’s certainly a lack of historical understanding about how the expanding definition of who ‘We the People’ are has happened.”
And State Assemblyman John Wisniewksi (D) added: “Rosa Parks didn’t get to the front of the bus through a ballot question and Jim Crow laws weren’t repealed by public referendum.”
According to the Ledger, Christie defended himself Wednesday in a press conference: “My point is, they’re trying to say the only way to deal with a civil rights issue is through legislation, and my point is that in a state like this, the fact of the matter is their own polling belies that position.”
A recent Q poll found that the majority of NJ voters support marriage equality, 52%-42%.