Hours after a news conference in which Gov. Christie was forced to clarify, again and again, a controversial comment he made about the 1960s civil rights movement, a lion of that era showed up in Trenton to denounce the governor.

"I gave a little blood on that bridge in Selma, so here we have to stand up," said U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.), referring to the 1965 "Bloody Sunday" encounter in which Alabama state troopers attacked him and others demonstrating for voting rights for blacks.

Last week, the Republican governor said civil rights leaders of the period would have preferred to pursue change through ballot referendums instead of "dying in the streets."

He made the remark while announcing his plan to veto a Democratic bill that would legalize gay marriage in New Jersey, and instead calling for a referendum on the issue.

In response, Democrats in the state - and now, nationally - have accused Christie of being ignorant of history. If blacks could not even vote in many parts of the South, how would they have secured their civil rights through ballot questions?

At a marathon, 75-minute news conference Monday morning, Christie repeatedly tried to explain his remark about the civil rights leaders' strategy.

"What I said was I'm sure they would have liked to have the option" of referendums, Christie said. "That's what I said."

But that is not what he said. In a recording of his remarks after a town-hall meeting in Bridgewater last week, Christie is not heard using the word option.

"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," he said. "It was our political institutions that were holding things back."

Christie acknowledged Monday his point may have been made "inartfully." What he was trying to say, he explained, was that if same-sex marriage advocates have the public support they claim to have, holding a referendum is an option for them.

"Juxtapose that against the civil rights movement, where that was not an option . . . because the political climate in the South in that period of time would not have permitted a referendum [to have] any chance of passage," he said.

Reiterating his intention to veto any Democratic bill allowing same-sex marriage, Christie said: "We all know how this movie's going to end if they pass this bill. That's why I chalk this up to politics."

Democrats' criticism of his alleged gaffe was "transparently political" and "politically desperate," he said.

Christie called Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer), a same-sex marriage advocate who is openly gay, a "numb nuts" for issuing a news release last week that compared him to the former segregationist governors of the South.

Asked whether he agreed with Democrats that marriage equality was a "civil rights" issue, Christie said, "It's all in the eyes of the beholder."

Lewis, 71, said the ability to marry the person one loves, regardless of gender, was a civil right, and he quoted his compatriot the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke out for the rights of whites and blacks to marry one another.

"If we had been waiting on referendums to bring down those signs that said, 'White Men,' 'Colored Men,' 'White Women,' 'Colored Women' . . . we'd probably still be waiting," Lewis said in an interview several hours before his news conference at the Trenton Transit Center, where he was joined by Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) and other prominent state Democrats.

"We had to put our bodies on the line," he said.

The Democratic National Committee helped coordinate media coverage of Lewis' response to Christie's comment, which indicates that national Democrats have put a target on the rising Republican star. Lewis said he already had planned to be in town to speak to students in Trenton, but he wanted to stop at the train station and talk to the media about the issue.

If Lewis had wanted to meet with him while he was in town, Christie said, "I'd clear my calendar" because he is an "American hero."

The governor said he had made issues affecting African Americans - urban education and rehabilitation for drug offenders - a priority.

At the news conference, Christie took questions about another controversy connected to the marriage-equality issue and his nomination of a gay black Republican, Bruce Harris, to the state Supreme Court last week.

He confirmed a report published Sunday in the Star-Ledger that Harris had said he would recuse himself if the matter of gay marriage came before the court because he had publicly advocated for such a measure.

Before the news conference, Christie met with about 35 African American leaders at the Governor's Mansion for what he said was a previously scheduled event. Chesilhurst Mayor Michael Blunt, who attended the meeting, said Christie "cleared up" the matter of his remark.

"He addressed how he said it, and what he meant by it," Blunt said in an interview. "I felt as though he was genuine. I felt as though he was not there to pander to us."

Blunt said it meant a lot that Christie talked about urban issues and had visited largely African American communities, such as his own, that didn't support him in the election. "Just because he's a Republican," Blunt said, "doesn't mean that he's racist."

The president of the Camden County NAACP chapter, Kelly Francis, told the governor's office he would attend the meeting after he was invited Thursday. When he found out the purpose of the meeting was not for Christie to address his controversial remark, he decided not to go.

"I thought he was going to apologize for his stupidity, for his ignorance," Francis said.

Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, mkatz@phillynews.com, or @mattkatz00. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at philly.com/christiechronicles