As civil rights leader comes to Trenton, Christie clarifies remark

UPDATE: On Tuesday night, the day after this post, Christie apologized.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.), a legend of the civil rights era, will join Democrats in Trenton this afternoon to denounce Gov. Christie's remark that 1960s-era activists would have been been happy to have rights for African Americans decided by Southern voters.

Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, a gay-rights group that pushed for the measure signed by Gov. Christie last January, said lawmakers could make changes quickly to keep the law in force.

"To me it's unreal, it's unbelievable, that he would suggest that those of us involved in the civil rights movement use referendum to end discrimination," Lewis said in an interview this morning. "If we had been waiting on referendum to bringing down those signs that said, 'White Men,' 'Colored Men,' 'White Women,' 'Colored Women'...we’d probably still be waiting."

Lewis, who was beaten while engaging in civil disobedience against the racist practices of the South, said one county in Alabama with an 85 percent black population didn't have a single black voter. A referendum on civil rights, therefore, would have failed. "So we had to put our bodies on the line," he said.

Christie, a Republican, made the controversial civil rights comment last week when he announced that he plans to veto a same-sex marriage bill that Democrats are sending him and instead supports putting the question directly to voters on the ballot.

Christie clarified his remarks on civil rights at a morning news conference today at the Statehouse, saying that civil rights leaders in the 1960s would have preferred if the political climate allowed them to pursue change through referendum. 

"What I said was I'm sure they would have liked to have the option" of pursuing a referendum instead of dying in the streets. "That’s what I said."

But that's not what he said. According to a recording of his remarks after a town hall last week in Bridgewater, Christie didn't use the word "option."

As we first reported last week, Christie said: "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 Monday Christie reviewed his political record, saying he has made problems of minorities, like violence and education in urban areas, a priority. And he said he met with black mayors Monday morning, as part of a previously scheduled meeting, and clarified his remarks with them. He said they understood.

Christie acknowledged that his point last week might have been stated "inartfully," but he was simply trying to say that since same-sex marriage advocates say they have the public’s support, going to referendum is an option for them. “Juxtapose that against the civil rights movement, where that was not an option for them because the political climate in the south in that period of time would not have permitted a referendum of having any chance of passage,” he said.

Christie said if Lewis wants to meet with him while he's in Trenton today, "I'd clear my calendar" because he is an "American hero."

But he said the controversy over his remarks is a "politically desperate" attack. Specifically, he called out Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer), an openly gay advocate of same-sex marriage who last week compared Christie to segregationist Govs. Lester Maddox and George Wallace.

Christie, known for his colorful language in calling out political enemies, called Gusciora "numbnuts" at today's news conference.