In March of 1965, the Revered Martin Luther King Jr. put out a call to clergy around the country to join him in Selma, Alabama to press for voting equality for African-American voters in the South. Don Shank, who at the time was Pastor of Elgin’s Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren, heeded the call. Despite the violence and real threat to his safety, Shank rushed to Selma to show solidarity with other clergy.
Shank, who is now the Oncology Chaplain at Presence Saint Joseph Hospital – Elgin, joined 300 others at the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church the night before the second march at Selma to hear the Reverend King speak. It was not the first time Shank had witnessed King speak. He was at the March on Washington in 1963, but this time it was up close and personal.
“I was able to meet the Reverend King and shake his hand. I also shook the hand of President Lyndon Johnson, but I must say my encounter with Reverend King was of greater significance. It was absolutely spiritually transformational,” said Shank.
The March on Washington was a turning point for Shank. When he arrived in Elgin in 1961, racial barriers were deeply entrenched. According to Shank, African-Americans were still relegated to just two streets on the east side of town.
“I realized that faith could no longer be a private affair with God. You can’t just have a relationship with God and call that complete. Jesus said you should love your God with all your heart, mind and strength – and love your neighbor as yourself,” said Shank. “I had been partially blind to the social injustices in my community. The March on Washington awakened in me the social injustice that as a white, middle class American I was immune from.”
Upon his return from Washington, Shank became more active in the civil rights movement. He focused on breaking down housing barriers and worked with other pastors to raise awareness about racial equality. He became close personal friends with the Pastor of Second Baptist Church and developed a tradition of bringing the two racially divergent congregations together to worship. It is a tradition that continues to this day.
“We wanted to raise awareness among our congregations that we have much more in common than in difference; and that we needed to accentuate that commonality.”
Shank says Washington was the beginning of his spiritual transformation, and he calls Selma the capstone.
“We didn’t know what to expect in Selma, but Reverend King stressed there was to be no retaliation. He said we are not returning evil for evil, we are returning -- as Jesus Chris said -- good for evil. That fit into my own theology for how life is to be lived,” said Shank.
“Selma was so inspirational that it took me weeks and months to digest what happened. I was only there for 48 hours but it was the most influential 48 hours spiritually, emotionally, and mentally in my whole life,” said Shank. “I refocused my life on working for social justice and equality.”
Years later, Shank was honored for fulfilling the promise he made to himself in Selma. In 2003, he received the City of Elgin’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award recognizing his "efforts on behalf of peace, reconciliation, and justice in the Elgin community."
“Reverend King was under constant threat, but he had the courage and conviction to speak out of the depths of his soul. He put his life where his words were, which was major motivation for me. He was a great man and I feel honored to have met him,” said Shank.