He added: "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."
Democrats denounced that remark, saying that many blacks in the South wouldn't have even been allowed to vote in such a referendum.
By Monday, the comment was getting national attention, and a legend of the civil rights era who faced violence on those streets in the South, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.), held a news conference in Trenton. He said Christie needed to study history.
Christie was asked about the comment repeatedly at a Monday news conference. He said that he was trying to say that civil rights leaders "would have liked to have the option" of pursuing a referendum, but that the political climate at the time would not have allowed it.
He did not apologize. Instead, he said his comments were perhaps said "inartfully."
After his apology Tuesday night, one of his critics, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex), said in an e-mail that Christie was right to apologize. "Going forward, I now trust and expect that, as the Legislature moves toward implementing marriage equality, the governor will respect the serious nature of the constitutionality of civil rights and equal protection under the law."
The call-in program began with a question from the host about another remark Christie made at the Monday news conference, in which he called an openly gay Democratic legislator and same-sex marriage supporter a "numb nuts." The legislator had compared Christie to the segregationist governors of the South.
Christie reiterated the "numb nuts" comment. His mother used the term, he added, and sometimes referred to him that way. "You get no apology from me on 'numb nuts,' " he said.
Christie faced two questions from Rutgers-Camden students upset by Christie's plan to merge the school with Rowan University. One, a law student and military veteran, also quoted the Constitution in taking issue with Christie's opposition to same-sex marriage.
"Every American citizen should have the right to marry a person they love," the caller said.
Christie responded: "I understand your position on it, I simply differ with you."
Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, email@example.com, or @mattkatz00. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at philly.com/christiechronicles.