THE ROSA PARKS OF IOWA
What do the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Reverend James Lawson, C. T. Vivien, Representative John Lewis, Marion Barry, Bernard Lafayette, Jr., Rodney Powell, Diane Nash, Reverend James Bevel, Andrew Young, Paul LaPrad, Angeline Butler, and Edna Griffin have in common? They were believers in Gandhi's idea of non-violent protest and used it by conducting sit- ins at lunch counters to defeat Jim Crow apartheid in the United States. However, almost twelve years before the sit-ins at the lunch counters in Nashville, Tennessee, Edna Griffin, John Bibbs, Leonard Hudson went into the Katz Drug store in Des Moines, Iowa, sat down and placed their orders. When a young woman at the counter went to serve them, she was stopped and they were told that the store did not "serve coloreds." They continued sitting there and insisted on speaking with the manager. They were informed by Maurice Katz that they would not be served in his store. Edna Griffin would not take no for an answer.
Edna Griffin and her two friends went to the Municipal Courthouse in Des Moines, Iowa and filed criminal charges against Maurice Katz. Edna Griffin and her two friends also filed a civil suit against Mr. Katz and the Katz Drug Store. During the civil trial, Charles P. Howard and Henry T. McKnight, members of the local NAACP Legal Defense Fund, represented Edna, throughout the civil trial. That trial resulted in an award of $1 in damages to Mrs. Griffin. The support of attorneys through the NAACP was the only way for plaintiffs to be represented in civil rights suits. In 1948, there was no state agency authorized to deal with civil rights violations. The local chapter of the NAACP also represented plaintiffs in the cases of Williams v. Nixon's Luncheonette, Arnett v. Nixon's Luncheonette, Hill v. Midtown Roller Rink, Washington v. Midtown Roller Rink, and additional civil cases against the Katz Drug store by other individuals.
This was the third time that Mr. Katz had been charged with civil rights violations under Iowa's 1884 Civil Rights Act. On three previous occasions, the Polk County Attorney's Office had tried Mr. Katz and on all three occasions, he was acquitted. In addition to filing these charges, Edna Griffin organized sit-ins and picketing outside the Katz Drugstore located at 7th and Locust. The local Black owned and operated newspaper, The Bystander, also covered the sit-ins and picketing in the news. On December 1, 1949, The Bystander wrote an editorial decrying Mr. Katz's repeated violation of the civil rights law. In the editorial, the fact that civil rights violators were not physically arrested was decried. Some of the picketers were reunited at a 50th anniversary celebration held by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission on July 7, 1998.
Mr. Katz was put on trial a fourth and final time. This jury was made up of six white women. When the trial was over, Mr. Katz was convicted of violating the 1884 Civil Rights Act. He was fined $50 and appealed his case to the Iowa Supreme Court. In December 1949, the Iowa Supreme Court issued its decision upholding the conviction of Mr. Katz for violating the civil rights of Edna Griffin, John Bibbs, and Leonard Hudson.
While this is perhaps, what Edna Griffin is best known for, it is only a small part of her life. Edna Griffin was born in rural New Hampshire and learned to read by reading the Crisis, the publication of the NAACP. According to Ms. Griffin, she never experienced discrimination in New Hampshire, although her family was the only African-American family in a four county area. Her family later moved to Massachusetts where she was first exposed to negative attitudes regarding race. Ms. Griffin attended Fisk University where she received an English degree. Fisk University is now known for graduating many civil rights activists. At Fisk University, Ms. Griffin was involved in protesting Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia. She was even arrested when she marched with striking teachers in a picket line. Ms. Griffin also organized the Des Moines chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.). She and her husband, a local prominent physician, raised money for approximately 40 individuals to attend Dr. King's March on Washington.
Since that time, Ms. Griffin has been honored with the Mary Louise Smith Award, Urban Dreams' Trailblazer Award, and has recently had the building where the Katz Drug Store was located named after her. She has also been inducted in the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame. On May 15, 1998, at the Urban Dreams dinner for Ms. Griffin, Preston Daniels, the mayor of Des Moines, declared that May 15th is Edna Griffin Day. On July 7, 1998, the Iowa Civil Rights Commission held a reunion at the site of the drug store and placed a plaque on the building in honor of the participants in the sit-ins and picketing.
While this summary states that Ms. Griffin is the "Rosa Parks of Iowa", Ms. Griffin is reluctant to claim any credit. Ms. Griffin will tell you that what she did was not as dangerous because of Iowa's 1884 Civil Rights Act which made it a misdemeanor not to serve African-Americans. However, we must continue to honor this civil rights activist for her role in helping to end open discrimination in public accommodations. An example of the impact that Ms. Griffin's actions had is when another civil rights case was getting ready to go to court, the case settled when the defense attorneys were told of the Iowa Supreme Court's decision.