Those who do not learn from history are doomed to misquote it, as the Spanish philosopher George Santayana did not say. A prime example: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie saying civil-rights activists “would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets of the South.”
The governor, who has 20 years of schooling on his résumé—the last three at a fully accredited law school—displayed this remarkable ignorance of one of the most important legal and political events in American history while explaining his decision to veto a bill that would legalize gay marriage. Christie argued last week that the issue should be decided by a popular referendum—and claimed that 1950s and 1960s civil-rights activists would have preferred one.
It’s one thing if the governor of one of our largest states—and a potential GOP presidential candidate—doesn’t happen to have the details of the Whiskey Rebellion or the procedural history of the passage of the Sherman Act at his fingertips. It’s quite another when he purports to base policy decisions on a level of historical knowledge that should embarrass a sixth grader.
Christie was born in 1962. At that time, the states of the old Confederacy imposed an apartheid regime on their black citizens, via a combination of state violence (a.k.a. “the law”) and private terrorism. A critical element of this regime was that African-Americans were mostly precluded from voting, by that same combination of forces. The notion that, under such conditions, people risking their lives in the fight for racial justice “would have been happy” to see their campaign put to a popular vote is offensive and idiotic.
(On Tuesday night, Christie did apologize for his remark, telling a New Jersey radio station: “Anybody who was offended by what I said, if you’re listening out there tonight, I apologize for that. I didn’t mean to offend anybody, and if I did I’m sorry.”)
Jim Crow was finally dismantled, not by popular referendum but by federal legislation, and the federal court decisions that enforced it. That legislation, and those decisions, were opposed bitterly by most of the American conservative political establishment, including such icons of the American right as Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater. That opposition was based on the pernicious idea that the property rights of business owners were so precious and inviolate that they should trump even the most minimal regard for basic human decency.
In Reagan and Goldwater’s worldview, a man’s desire to refuse to serve a family a meal in his restaurant, or to offer that family one of his hotel rooms for the night, for no more ennobling reason that he preferred not to do business with “niggers” was something that ought to be protected by all the force of the state.
Meanwhile, that family’s desire to be treated like human beings was considered, according to the conservative pieties of the day, to be the kind of radical demand that, if enforced by federal law, would lead inexorably to the end of both Freedom as We Know It and The American Way of Life.
In one sense, of course, Reagan and Goldwater were right. When we study the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, I make sure my students look at the legislative history of the bill, which includes such things as Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s testimony that, while an African-American family traveling through Montgomery, Ala., would have a choice of one hotel at which they could stay in the entire city, a white family traveling with a dog could choose from among five establishments. Many of them find it hard to believe that their parents grew up in a country where such social arrangements were not merely tolerated but protected and celebrated “under color of state law,” as we say in law school.
This deeply shameful and savagely unjust state of affairs was central to one particularly prominent and controversial version of the American way of life—a version that is by no means a matter of ancient history, given that it reigned supreme in much of America in the year of the 49-year-old Governor Christie’s birth.
That all this has gone conveniently down the memory hole for Christie, or that perhaps he somehow managed to avoid learning it in the first place, says much about the extent to which the contemporary American conservative movement is still in the hands of the radical reactionaries who hijacked it at, not coincidentally, the precise moment when African-Americans finally became full citizens under American law.