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Reply to "Edna Griffin: The Rosa Parks of Iowa"

Activists keep alive memory of Iowa's civil-rights pioneers

Fifty years ago, three blacks facing discrimination said enough was enough

Edna Griffin challenged prejudice 50 years ago by asking to be served at the Katz Drug Store in downtown Des Moines. A year later she and two other blacks had their right to equal service affirmed. It was a watershed event in the civil-rights movement.

Originally published 6/21/1998

On a hot summer afternoon, two Des Moines residents sat at a soda fountain in a downtown drugstore while a friend purchased a record.

A waitress took the pair's order for ice cream. But after someone whispered to her, she told them, "We don't serve colored."

They asked to see the fountain manager. He told them: "It is the policy of our store that we don't serve colored; we don't have the proper equipment."

Then, according to court records, the general manager of the store explained: "I cater to a large volume of white trade and don't have the proper equipment to serve you."

The incident in 1948 at Katz Drug Store sparked picketing and sit-ins, lawsuits and a successful criminal case against the general manager for violating the Iowa civil-rights law. The state Supreme Court affirmed the conviction the following year.

Now, the Iowa Civil Rights Commission plans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the event on July 7 by honoring the three residents - John Bibbs, Edna Griffin and the late Leonard Hudson - and others who joined forces to successfully protest racial discrimination in the state.

Their protest was one of courage and tenacity. Their story is a chronicle of African-Americans who successfully challenged society in the middle of the century to look and act beyond the confines of color.

"It seemed to me to be the only thing to do," said Griffin, now 87, sitting in a wheelchair at the Ramsey Home in Des Moines. "You didn't have any other alternatives. That's really how it was."

Said John Bibbs, 71, from his Des Moines home: "We don't talk about it anymore -things have gone past that point. It's something that needed to be done and someone had to do it, so I'm glad to have been able to take a part."

Talk - about race and race relations - is what Don Grove, executive director of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, wants to promote by commemorating the anniversary.

"We should do more of that -adults should, and kids in school," said Grove, whose organization scoured newspaper archives, law libraries, government documents and residents' memories to establish a record of the event and find the surviving participants.

"We're hoping that by getting more and more people to know about what happened and why it is so significant, by doing that it will encourage dialogue on race relations, perspectives and attitudes," Grove said.

Segregation stretched through Iowa. At the time of the Katz incident, blacks generally couldn't eat in downtown restaurants or stay in hotels there. In theaters, they were relegated to the balconies.

"The reality is, it not only happened but was pervasive here," said Russell Lovell, professor of law at Drake University and director of the Drake Legal Clinic who has studied Charles P. Howard, the noted civil-rights lawyer who represented Griffin in her lawsuit. "It wasn't like Katz was an outcast, an exception. It was virtually all downtown restaurants and movie theaters."

Evelyn Davis, another activist in Des Moines, said she didn't carry any picket signs protesting drugstore practices because she was "chicken."

But Davis, 77, helped the protesters behind the scenes. Nowadays, when she goes into establishments to eat, she sometimes thinks "about how far we've come" and on whose shoulders she and others stood to get there.

An early skirmish

The Katz Drug Store protest occurred early in the nation's civil-rights history -seven years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., sparking a boycott and inspiring civil-right activists throughout the country.

So the event in Des Moines is puzzling: What influenced the protesters? What spurred their activism?

Some people wonder whether they were boosted by Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who broke the color barrier in major league baseball in 1947. Or if they were influenced by Mohandas Gandhi, who had died earlier in 1948.

Bibbs said his encounter with racism in the Navy spurred his action. Someone marching with him poked him in the ribs, then made a racist slur when Bibbs raised his voice in anger. When he reported the incident to authorities, he was the one who was punished.

"That gave me a clue as to where I was at in the world," he said. "I could be right or I could be wrong, it doesn't make a difference."

After the service, he became interested in the Progressive Party under Henry Wallace, an Iowan and former Democratic U.S. vice president, and its civil-rights stance, which he deemed favorable.

Through a provision of the G.I. Bill, Bibbs, a veteran looking for work, was able to receive $20 a week for up to 52 weeks from the federal government. That money, he said, helped provide him subsistence when protesting.

Many of the people on the picket line, he recalled, were women, including Betty Lou Bundy, whom he married.

Griffin's daughter Phyllis was an infant. Phyllis was with her mother that day in Katz Drug Store.

"We always knew she was bold," Phyllis Griffin said by phone from Chicago, where she is an associate professor of history at DePaul University. "But we didn't understand how much courage she has."

Edna Griffin's health now is fragile, her daughter said.

In a videotaped interview in 1989 with Ben Stone of the civil-rights commission, now head of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, Griffin said there was no comparison with what transpired later in the South.

"There was no connection, because those people put their lives on the line to get served," she said nine years ago. "Those women who walked every day. I don't know if we could have raised that kind of commitment here in support of the effort."

Bibbs thinks racism still exists but is not as overt. He called it a "quiet" racism.

At 11:30 a.m. July 7, the civil-rights commission will dedicate a commemorative plaque at the southeast corner of Seventh and Locust streets, where the drugstore once operated.

A reception and reunion will be held later at 4:30 p.m. that day at the Iowa Historical Building. The events are free and open to the public.