“No minority should have their rights subject to the passions and sentiments of the majority. This is the fundamental bedrock of what our nation stands for.” Newark Mayor, Cory Booker
In recent weeks, outrageous statements targeted at minority citizens have come out of the mouths of a number of conservative politicians – everything from the assertion that African Americans prefer food stamps over pay checks to the claim that “black people” are using “other people’s money” to get ahead.
But last week, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey may have topped them all when he declared, “People would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets in the South.” The Governor’s statement was made in the context of his proposal that the issue of same-sex marriage in New Jersey be settled by a voter referendum. But his words amounted to an insult to generations of men and women who put their lives on the line for equal rights. They also ignore the fact that the sole purpose of any civil rights struggle is to gain rights for minority citizens that the majority has historically and consistently denied.
The nonsense of Christie’s statement was made all the more apparent by the fact that during the heyday of lynchings, poll taxes and “separate but equal schools”, any referendum on voting rights and civil rights for African Americans would have excluded many of the very people seeking those rights. In fact it was only because the majority for centuries had first enslaved and then discriminated against African Americans that it became necessary for people of conscience to organize in protest against such treatment. Christie should remember that in the 18th century, it was not a referendum but a revolution that formed the United States of America. In the 19th century, it was not a referendum, but a civil war that ended slavery and unified our nation. And in the 20th century, it was not a referendum, but a series of non-violent civil rights struggles that defeated Jim Crow and secured voting rights for women, African Americans and other disenfranchised minorities.
Sheila Oliver, New Jersey’s first African American woman Assembly Speaker, correctly saw Christie’s proposal to submit same-sex marriage rights to the whims of voters as a shirking of responsibility. She said, “The major issues of our time such as women's suffrage and civil rights were rightly decided legislatively. We are elected by the people of New Jersey to protect civil rights. We do not pass on such tough decisions." Oliver also took issue with Christie’s characterization of the civil rights struggle, adding, “Governor, people were fighting and dying in the streets of the South because the majority refused to grant minorities equal rights by any method. It took legislative action to bring justice to all Americans, just as legislative action is the right way to bring marriage equality to all New Jerseyans.”
It is almost unthinkable that a sitting governor would either be so uninformed so callous to suggest that civil rights movements have not played a necessary and positive role in ensuring that the promise of freedom, equality and democracy is made real for every citizen. We think the Governor owes the people of New Jersey and all Americans a clear explanation.
Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.