By Jessica Lowe
Long before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala.; more than a decade before Martin Luther King Jr. gave the historic “I Have A Dream” speech; prior to almost every major event in the Civil Rights timeline taught in classrooms; there was an Iowan beginning her own fight for equality — Edna Griffin.
Griffin was a leader in the Civil Rights movement before there was a name for the movement. Born on Oct. 23, 1909, in Lexington, Ky., Griffin was raised in rural New Hampshire, the daughter of a dairy farm supervisor and his wife. She studied to be a teacher at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., where she graduated in 1933. While at Fisk, Griffin met her future husband, Stanley Griffin. The couple moved to Des Moines in 1947 so Stanley Griffin could attend Still College of Osteopathy and Surgery, now Des Moines University.
“They moved to Des Moines … and bought a home in the Beaverdale neighborhood on the northwest side of Des Moines where they raised their three children: Phyllis, Linda and Stanley,” said Mikel Johnson, friend and former neighbor of Griffin’s. “A black family moving into Beaverdale during that period of time certainly took some strength of character.”
Not only did the family show “strength of character” for where they chose to live, soon Griffin would be faced with the decision to fight for her beliefs. It would be in Des Moines where Griffin would take her place in American history and forever change the racial culture in Iowa and the nation.
On July 7, one of the hottest days during the summer of 1948, John Bibbs, Leonard Hudson and Griffin, along with her 1-year-old daughter, Phyllis, stopped at Katz Drug Store in downtown Des Moines. Griffin ordered an ice cream soda, according to the University of Iowa’s Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. The group was refused service because the store was “not equipped to serve colored people.”
Griffin, Bibbs and Hudson, who were all active in the efforts to end discrimination against African-Americans and members of the Progressive Party of Iowa, did not take the incident lightly. According to Johnson, Griffin organized a boycott, conducted sit-ins and picketed in front of the store every Saturday for two months, which was located on the southeast corner of Seventh and Locust streets. Wanting to see change happen for everyone, the three filed charges against the store’s owner, Maurice Katz, in November of 1948 citing violation of the 1884 Iowa Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination in a public place.
The criminal trial drew statewide attention when Katz was found guilty by a jury and fined $50. The drug store owner filed an appeal but the conviction was upheld by the Iowa Supreme Court in December of 1949.
While the appeal for the criminal trial was in progress, Griffin brought a civil suit in the Polk County District Court for $10,000 in damages from the July 1948 incident.
During the civil trial, Griffin was represented by local members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund. Her civil case was heard and an all-white jury sided with Griffin and awarded her $1 in damages, which her lawyer deemed a “moral victory.” The landmark case meant that lunch counters, soda fountains and restaurants in Des Moines by law had to serve African-Americans.
“Edna Griffin fought for civil rights for African-Americans and all people, but she also fought for all people across all the protected classes,” said Johnson, human rights specialist in the Des Moines Human Rights Department. “She was a true advocate for peace and human rights.”