BY TOM HESTER SR.
In a comment related to his call for a voter referendum on the proposal to legalize gay marriage in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie said Wednesday, “People would have been happy to have referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets in the South.”
The governor, who on Tuesday called for a referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot that would ask voters to decide if the state should legalize same-sex marriage, also said he will veto the Democratic legislation to allow it when the proposal reaches his desk.
The comment that the civil rights movement of the 1960s could have been settled through a national or southern states voter referendum stunned Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-Essex), who became the first African-American woman to head the lower house in 2010.
“Gov. Christie 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,” Oliver said. “It’s impossible to ever conceive that a referendum on civil rights in the South would have been successful and brought justice to minorities. It’s unfathomable to even suggest a referendum would have been the better course.
“Governor – people were fighting and dying in the streets of the South for a reason,” the Assemblywoman 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,” Oliver said. “The governor needs to show the same courage. We do not shrug off civil rights. We do not pass on tough decisions.”
Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer) also offered criticism of the governor’s comment.
“It’s difficult to understand what the governor was thinking,” Watson Coleman said. “His words defy history and were extremely insensitive to the struggle for equality of African-Americans and other minorities in this country. Fighting and dying in the streets of the South was not a choice, governor, it was the only way.
“Anyone who lived through that time or took a history class in school understands it was an incredibly dangerous and hostile period for African-Americans and other minorities in the South,” the Assemblywoman said. “Basic human rights should never be decided by a referendum. But can you imagine the outcome if civil rights in this country, during this very racially charged time in our history, had been left up to a vote?
“It took leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. to inspire legislators to ensure civil rights for everyone in this country, regardless of race, age or creed,” Watson Coleman said. “If the governor was hoping to defend his reprehensible stance on marriage equality by suggesting that those who fought and died for civil rights in this county would have preferred a referendum, that by all historical accounts would have been most likely defeated, he failed miserably.”
Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), the state Democratic chairman, 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. These civil rights were won because throughout our history, great leaders -- both Democrats and Republicans, from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham LIncoln to Lyndon Baines Johnson -- have stood up and lead the forward march of progress. To call for a public referendum on any civil right is the refuge of someone who refuses to lead.
"Governor Christie has an opportunity to leave a mark in history as a someone who, when the beacon of civil rights called his name, stood up to be counted among the leaders," Wisniewski said. "My hope is that he finds the courage to take up the challenge and joins in the great American tradition of fighting to expand our civil rights and for justice."
Christie’s office had no immediate comment on the criticism offered by Oliver, Watson Coleman, or Wisniewski.
The Democratic-controlled Legislature has made the legalization of same-sex marriage a priority for the new legislative session.
On Tuesday, after a three-hour session, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill (S-1) and sent it to the full Senate to await a vote. Oliver had vowed to move the bill quickly through the Assembly when Senate action is complete.
A side reason for the Democrats action on the same-sex marriage bill is to try to embarrass Christie politically for opposing it. Christie is making a name for himself nationally among Republican Party activists and a number of them have been urging him to seek the GOP presidential nomination this year to save the party from a seemingly weak field of candidates. He also is up for re-election as governor next year.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed 52 percent of New Jersey voters believe gay couples should have the right to marry.
On Tuesday, Christie said, “This issue that our state is exploring – whether or not to redefine hundreds of years of societal and religious traditions – should not be decided by 121 people in the Statehouse in Trenton. The fact is we’re discussing huge change, and I believe we need to approach this not only in a thoughtful way, not in a rushed way, but also in a way where we’re able to get the most input that we can from the public.”
Should the “Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act" be approved in the state, New Jersey would become the seventh state to allow same-sex marriage. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York have legalized it as have 10 countries, including South Africa, Argentina, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.