Chris Christie needs a history lesson on referendums and civil rights

OPINION - Last week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie demonstrated blatant ignorance of the African-American civil rights movement in America as he tried to justify his decision to attempt to derail same-sex marriage by sending the issue to a voter referendum...

african kings

With a same-sex marriage bill headed for his veto pen, New Jersey governor Chris Christie says he is offering supporters of equality the “bargain of a lifetime” by pushing for a referendum instead. The Center for American Progress’ Henry Fernandez offers Gov. Christie a history lesson.

Last week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie demonstrated blatant ignorance of the African American civil rights movement in America as he tried to justify his decision to attempt to derail same-sex marriage by sending the issue to a voter referendum.

Gov. 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.

A referendum, which is also called a ballot initiative, allows the voters of a state to decide directly at the ballot box whether to have a law or not. Gov. Christie made this comment to explain his determination to seek a referendum on marriage equality and “let the people decide” instead of supporting a marriage equality bill which already has strong support in the New Jersey legislature. [Christie later walked back the civil rights reference, but he has stood by his call for a public vote on marriage equality.]

We can only hope that New Jersey’s schoolchildren know their civil rights history better than their governor.

Gov. Christie is wrong for two simple reasons that apply to the African American civil rights movement as well as to the struggle for LGBT rights.

Civil rights marches didn’t kill African-Americans.

The civil rights sit in movement or Freedom Riders did not cause the killing of black people in the streets in the South. They were being killed by racist murderers.

African Americans were being lynched long before the modern civil rights movement brought marchers to the streets. They were killed because they didn’t move off the sidewalk fast enough, because they owned their own piece of property, and for just about any other reason that a group of bigots decided they should be made an example of. Indeed, a spark that helped drive change in America, and moved African-Americans across the country to action, was the torture and execution of 14 year old Emmett Till in Mississippi.

In Gov. Christie’s retelling of history, if there had just been a referendum, there would have been no such “dying in the streets in the South.” That doesn’t even make sense.

Similarly, too many young people are now bullied because of their sexual orientation. And too many of them have lost hope such that suicide remains a real concern for those who work every day to support gay teenagers. Police violence against gay people helped spur the Stonewall riots, which are often described as the birth of the LGBT civil rights struggle.

You see, governor, racial violence threatened African-Americans constantly. And today, violence remains a daily fear for gay Americans as they pursue their rights, or just hope to live openly. Ending violence is a primary goal for civil rights movements, and one way that they do that is by highlighting its very existence and confronting it directly. The confrontational nonviolent struggle of African-Americans for their rights was not done in lieu of understanding how to use the ballot box, but because those who would have voted in your imaginary southern civil rights referenda were exactly the ones who had to be forced to change.

Referenda historically don’t deliver civil rights.

Second, ballot initiatives aren’t an effective method for delivering or protecting civil rights.

In your own state, in 1915, women were denied the right to vote via ballot initiative. And after the legislature in California passed the 1963 Rumsford Fair Housing Act to end discrimination against African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians, bigoted realtors and property owners paid for and passed ballot referendum Proposition 14, which sought to allow landlords to continue to deny housing to people of color. Recent ballot initiatives in California and Maine have rescinded marriage equality laws in very close votes in those states.

Enough revisionist history.

Politically inspired revisionist history that undermines the historic struggle of oppressed people needs to stop. And governor, you should know better. You should not join ignorant politicians such as Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), who thinks that the civil war and Jim Crow would have been avoided if the North had just paid the South for their slaves.

Nor should you sign on to race-baiting nonsense like Rep. Michelle Bachman (R-MN) did when she joined in the lie that there were more two-parent black families during slavery than today.

You have, after all, been quite willing in your recent appointments to stand up for Muslim Americans and to create opportunities for African Americans and gay people.

Gov. Christie, if you want to spend time retelling history, I would suggest that you read up on Gov. John Patterson in Alabama or Gov. Ross Barnett of Mississippi, both of whom served their states in the 1960s. They too tried to stand against the civil rights progress of their time, and history hasn’t remembered them fondly, no matter how popular they were in their day.

Henry Fernandez is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, where he focuses on state and municipal policy.