New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has become well-known for bombastic rhetoric that, while intended to be harsh and grating, has won him admirers. But a statement he made Tuesday about civil rights while calling for a state referendum about same-sex marriage has simply “stunned” black leaders in New Jersey.
Christie seems to think that civil rights should be put to the vote. Said the governor at a town-hall-style meeting in suburban, Republican-learning Bridgewater:
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.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D- Essex County) told Christie he needs, as he does, a “history lesson”:
Governor — people were fighting and dying in the streets of the South for a reason. They were fighting and dying in the streets of the South because the majority refused to grant minorities equal rights by any method. It took legislative action to bring justice to all Americans, just as legislative action is the right way to bring marriage equality to all New Jerseyans.
Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark (in Essex County), whose population is more than 50 percent African-American, and who is not very vocal in speaking out about Christie, said:
I shudder to think what would have happened if the civil rights gains, heroically established by courageous lawmakers in the 1960s, were instead conveniently left up to popular votes in our 50 states.
Assemblyman John Wisniewksi (D-Middlesex County), chairman of the state Democratic Party, said:
“Rosa Parks didn’t get to the front of the bus through a ballot question and Jim Crow laws weren’t repealed by public referendum.”
In defense of his remark, Christie said that “the only way to deal with a civil rights issue is through legislation.” Well, not exactly: As the New York Times notes, the right to same-sex marriage has been generally granted via court decisions or legislative bills. In 2008, voters in California approved Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. Advocates for same-sex marriage point out that ”almost every one of more than 30 ballot questions on gay rights had failed to broaden them.”
Moreover, the Civil Rights Acts and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed after years of discrimination against African-Americans at the polls. As NJ.com quotes Jerome Harris, chairman of the New Jersey Black Issues Convention, Christie’s statement reveals “a lack of historical understanding about how the expanding definition of who ‘We the People’ are has happened. Sometimes it takes bold acts of defiance by the minority.”
I routinely wince when Christie talks but his statement that “people would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets in the South” has bothered me far more deeply. How does Christie presume to speak for civil rights leaders who understood the need to assert their presence by sitting at lunch counters where they were not allowed because of their race, by standing in protest in the streets?
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Photo with statue of Lincoln in front of the Old Essex County Courthouse in Newark, New Jersey, by Tony the Misfit