BEFORE '68: The murder of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, rocked the West Side of Chicago like no other part of the city. The West Side was home to King in 1966, when he decided to come up north to fight housing segregation. He chose this area of the city because it had long been neglected and was poorer and less politically empowered than the South Side. When King died in 1968, the West Side mourned so hard because, at least for a time, he was one of our own. | Courtesy Lawndale Christian Development Corporation

Edwin Muldrow, the owner of Del-Kar Pharmacy, 3726 W. 16th St., can tell you what the neighborhood was like more than 50 years ago, when black-owned retailers, restaurants, barbershops, beauty salons, night clubs and laundromats contributed to a living, relatively self-sustaining local ecosystem. 

Del-Kar was started by Muldrow’s father, Edward, in 1960, making the North Lawndale drugstore possibly the oldest black-owned pharmacy in the city. 

The store was here before Martin Luther King Jr. had reached the apotheosis of his ministry with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

Del-Kar was here when a radicalized King re-focused his concentration on northern injustices, moving into a run-down apartment at 1550 S. Hamlin Ave., a block away from the pharmacy, during his 1966 Chicago Campaign against housing segregation. 

“King would come into the store every day when he was living on Hamlin,” Edwin recalled. “He would pick up a newspaper and go to Mr. Woods Pool Hall and shoot pool. He’d eat barbecue [at a store nearby]. He was very active in the neighborhood when was here.” 

Del-Kar was here for King’s murder on April 4, 1968, and the few hellish days and nights of rioting that followed. 

“There was a white-owned drugstore on every corner, from Kedzie to Kostner, and each one was torched,” Edwin said. “My father’s was the only to remain. He and my mother were living in Markham at that time and he was commuting. So he’d come over one evening during the riots and the Vice Lords told him to go home. We’re not going to let anything happen to your store.” 

And 50 years later, Del-Kar remains — the largely forgotten history of King’s assassination and the riots that followed it fossilized within the drug store’s walls. 

“These kids grew up in the vacant lot generation,” Edwin said one afternoon last week in between handling customers. “They don’t know what the street looked like when there were actual businesses. It’s astonishing for them to see the photos we have here. They’ll say, ‘Man, I didn’t know 16th Street looked like this.’ It was once a bustling retail corridor.”

There’s a deeper lesson contained in Del-Kar’s resiliency that might provide a blueprint for resurrecting the West Side’s long-neglected economy, Edwin suggested. Edward, who died last year at 88, understood the dynamics of the neighborhood where he did business, his son said. 

“Me and my father have done an excellent job of policing our property,” Edwin said.  “We don’t tolerate loitering or open drug markets. But you have to have respect in the community and you have to know the stakeholders, so when you have an issue you can call those stakeholders involved and deal with that issue without calling the police.” 

Those relationships with neighborhood stakeholders proved vital during another urban disturbance on the West Side. In 1991, when the Chicago Bulls won their first championship, there was also “rioting in the neighborhood, breaking in and stealing, especially on Madison and Pulaski,” Edwin said.

But the store, once again, was unscathed. 

“Dad had come down to check on things and one of the new generation of street leaders said, ‘Yeah, go home. We ain’t going to let anything happen to your store.'”

Whether dealing with street gangs or a civil rights icon, Edwin said that the formula for engendering respect and trust is the same — something his father passed on to him. 

“The guys respected my father for being straight up,” the son said.