August 28, 2013

Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and emphasized the importance of now.

"We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now," he said, part of his famous "I Have a Dream" speech that capped the March on Washington in 1963. "Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment."

Decades later, tens of thousands of people flocked to the National Mall Saturday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic march emphasizing rights for African-Americans - and to call out the fact that despite King's plea, much has not changed.

One of those people was a former Carroll resident, the Rev. Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull.

Carlsson-Bull, 70, now a minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Meriden, Conn., lived in Carroll through high school.

"I was a cheerleader and played in the band," she said. "I was probably the worst clarinetist there."

She lived on Birch Street and grew up swimming, now a lifelong passion. As a teenager, she was a lifeguard all day and frequented the drive-in theater in the evenings.

Her parents, Lillian and Don White, were active in Carroll. Don was a church board member, although he preferred to play golf on Sunday mornings.

"My mom was a Girl Scout leader, and I was a Girl Scout," Carlsson-Bull said. "I wasn't allowed to misbehave - which was no fun at all, because I did."

Because almost all of her classmates were white, Carlsson-Bull said, she grew up naive about racial matters.

"The racial system wasn't overt; it was definitely covert during my growing-up years," she said. "I didn't understand the roots of it, and how fierce and brutal it is, till I got away and lived in places where there is more racial diversity."

That discovery landed her at the 50th anniversary march in Washington, D.C., last weekend.

Carlsson-Bull and other members of the Meriden church involved with anti-racism efforts worked with local and regional NAACP chapters to charter a bus and attend the march.

"The march was about ... compassionate justice for everyone, health care, meaningful jobs, not just jobs without benefits, racial justice, justice across class - which is huge," she said.

One of the main themes of the event, Carlsson-Bull said, was that the problems activists highlighted in 1963 are still present today.

After a recent Supreme Court decision striking down a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that stated some states cannot change voting laws without federal approval, a decision civil-rights activists have decried, voting rights were especially emphasized at Saturday's march.

"We went with a real commitment to further the purpose of the march, to let people know the fight for voting rights is not over," Carlsson-Bull said. "(We went) to let people know racism is alive and well, as is economic inequality, maybe even more than in 1963."