WASHINGTON -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), already under fire for saying he would veto a gay marriage bill and prefers a referendum on the issue, is drawing sharp criticism from black leaders for saying that people would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights.
"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 Tuesday at a news conference after a town hall meeting in Bridgewater, N.J., according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D), who supports gay marriage, criticized the comment. "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," he said, according to the Newark Star-Ledger.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) said the governor needed a "history lesson."
Unlike in the gay marriage case, many African-Americans were still disenfranchised in the 1950's and 60's and couldn't have voted on a civil-rights referendum.
Christie clarified his comment Wednesday. "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," he said. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed that 52 percent of New Jersey voters favor gay marriage.
High-profile gay marriage ballot initiatives failed in Maine in 2009 and California in 2008 after polls showed they had a decent chance of passing. Maine gay rights activists said Thursday that they had enough signatures to proceed with a second ballot initiative.
Six states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriages. New Jersey allows same-sex couples to enter into civil unions, although some same-sex couples in civil unions have said that the law doesn't provide adequate protections.
UPDATE: Christie apologized for his comments Tuesday. "But listen what I will say as long as we're on this topic is I also recognize that my job, one of my jobs as Governor, is to clearly communicate to people what I'm thinking, every time I open my mouth. And I try to be very good about being very direct about what I say so that there's no ambiguity but obviously when I was talking last week at the town hall meeting about the civil rights movement in the South, I wasn't clear enough. I just wasn't," he said. "And what I did was, by saying those things, I left them open to misinterpretation and obviously there are some folks out there whose feelings I hurt or sensibilities I offended. And I apologize for that, because that's my job. My job is to clearly communicate all the time. And so to those folks out there who were somehow offended or concerned about the ambiguity in my statement, I apologize for that because very clearly what I was trying to say, I said yesterday at the press conference about 5 or 6 times."