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Donna Hasleiet Halvorsen: MLK's message helped a girl break free into a new future

The idea that we didn’t all have to be the same, that it might be good to be different, was a stunning one for a 16-year-old.

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Black American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. addresses crowds during the March On Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, where he gave his "I Have A Dream" speech. Contributed / Central Press/Getty Images/TNS
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Each year at this time I’m reminded how important the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was to a small-town Minnesota girl with no hope for her future.

Peterson was an all-Norwegian Lutheran town -- except for one Catholic family -- of 318 people. We had a mayor, but it was understood that the minister ruled the town. Among the rules: No dancing, no drinking, no mowing your lawn on Sunday. People who ignored the rules were ostracized. A classmate who dated a boy from the Catholic family was told by the minister that if she continued the relationship, she would not be allowed in “my church.” Another girl who went to a dance in nearby Rushford was told if she attended another dance – even one – she would not be confirmed in the church.

Given the restrictions on our behavior, it’s still a mystery that my friend Susie Benson and I were able to board a bus to a national Lutheran youth convention in Florida in 1961. Except that, I’ve concluded, many townsfolk were decent, caring people who wanted kids to have this experience, even if it meant driving through the tumultuous South. They raised the money so we could go.

Might they have thought differently if they knew the speaker would be the most important civil rights leader of our time? The Rev. King’s appearance caused an uproar, and he pulled out, but two Minnesota ministers lured him back in.

So Susie and I sat there, in a sea of 14,000 overwhelmingly white Lutheran kids, listening to a charismatic Black minister whose message was so different from that of our pastor back home. One of the sentences that stood out was: “Do what you will to us, and we will still love you.”

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But more important to me was Dr. King’s exhortation not to allow yourself to become adjusted to the wrongs of the world: “Everybody wants to live a well-adjusted life,” he said. “I don’t intend to adjust myself to segregation and all that goes with it. It is not violence or nonviolence. It is nonviolence or nonexistence. The preservation of our society lies to the maladjusted.”

This statement reminded me of Peterson’s 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not be different.” Even going to college would make you different. Boys became farmers; girls became farmers’ wives. No one mentioned college to me, even though I would be the valedictorian of my class of 15.

The idea that we didn’t all have to be the same, that it might be good to be different, to rebel against society’s wrongs and even against society’s expectations of us as individuals, was a stunning one for a 16-year-old.

When I returned home to begin my senior year of high school, I met the second greatest man in my young life. Roy Johnson came to Peterson to teach English because no one else would hire him. He was newly blind but he was brilliant and tenacious and wasn’t interested in Peterson’s orthodoxies. He inspired all of us kids as we had never been inspired before. He told me I had to go to college. And so I did, putting myself through the University of Minnesota and becoming a journalist.

Both men appealed to the best in me. Both seared my soul for life. Together, they gave me the courage to break loose of preconceptions and be who I wanted to be. I’m grateful for the life these two men gave me.

Donna Hasleiet Halvorsen grew up in southeastern Minnesota and worked as a reporter for 32 years, including 17 years at the Star Tribune. She lives in South Portland, Maine.

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