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How Martin Luther King Jr.'s Assassination Affected His Chicago Neighborhood


Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood was overwhelmed by fires and looting in the days after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. As WBEZ's Miles Bryan reports, 50 years later, the neighborhood is still fighting to recover.

MILES BRYAN, BYLINE: After Birmingham, after Selma, King came here to Chicago. He moved into a rundown North Lawndale apartment in 1966 as part of a campaign to end slums. When King was killed two years later, riots erupted in this neighborhood. Today it has some of the city's highest poverty and unemployment rates. But Richard Townsell says there's much more to North Lawndale than its troubled past.

RICHARD TOWNSELL: I think we're trying to show a neighborhood that has persevered despite what happened. I think we're trying to show a resilience.

BRYAN: Townsell runs the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation. And he says that spirit of resilience is present in a little spot just a few blocks from his office.

TOWNSELL: So we're at Del-Kar pharmacy. I'm going to meet with Edwin Muldrow, whose dad owned it, and now he's the owner of it. So we'll take you inside.

EDWIN MULDROW: How you doing, brother? All right.

TOWNSELL: Good to see you.

MULDROW: All right, all right.

BRYAN: Here's Edwin Muldrow.

MULDROW: When people come in here and ask us, how long have you been in business; how long have you been on this corner, I just show them this picture.

BRYAN: The photo shows a bustling 16th Street with a couple of stylishly dressed black residents leaving the pharmacy. Del-Kar opened in 1960. And Muldrow says when Dr. King moved to the neighborhood six years later, he'd often stop in to grab a newspaper. Back then, North Lawndale was lively, but it had a lot of problems. It was overcrowded, hemmed in by racist housing policies, and there was simmering frustration with white business owners and landlords. Dr. King's assassination was the spark that lit the fire.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: High-pressure pumper from the fire department knocking down a blaze far removed from the main riot scene.

BRYAN: Much of what burned 50 years ago has not been rebuilt. But organizers like Richard Townsell have been trying. Over the last 30 years, his group has opened a day care provider, develop hundreds of apartment units, brought in a pizzeria. And that's all in a community that still struggles. You can hear it as we walk down the block.

TOWNSELL: So I had - didn't hear a lot about price gouging.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible) blow, (unintelligible) blow.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Got the rock, got the rock.

TOWNSELL: Didn't hear a lot about price gouging.

BRYAN: So that guy was trying to sell us some drugs.

TOWNSELL: Yeah, yeah (laughter).

BRYAN: That's not good.


BRYAN: In the decades since the riots, there's been lots of attempts to reboot here. In fact, WBEZ made a documentary about that 20 years ago in 1998.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Signs of life are starting to spring up now in Lawndale 30 years after the riots - new windows on old buildings, cleaned-up parks, new storefronts.

BRYAN: The fact that the neighborhood is still hoping to just turn the corner two decades after that can feel dispiriting, at least from the outside. But Whittney Smith says it's different when you're from here. She grew up in North Lawndale in the '90s, left for college and law school but then moved back. Standing on a corner surrounded by empty, trash-strewn lots, she sees promise.

WHITTNEY SMITH: I see where I played softball in the summers growing up. I look over there, and I know that there used to be a house right on this corner where I would sell candy. I don't see just empty spaces with trash. I see...

BRYAN: Richard Townsell is also optimistic. He points to a restaurant, catering service and day spa his group is helping open. Still, he knows it's small stuff in a neighborhood with so many needs.

TOWNSELL: What other choice do you have, right? Do you give in to apathy? Or do you continue to make incremental change?

BRYAN: Townsell knows that when reporters come to him in 20 years for another story about this neighborhood where Dr. King lived, he'll have to talk again about the riots. Though he hopes that by then they'll no longer be the main point in the story but instead represent the darkest moment of a neighborhood with a bright future. For NPR News, I'm Miles Bryan in North Lawndale. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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