Edna Griffin did the right thing
By REKHA BASU
Originally published 1/26/1998
Before institutional memory has faded, and the 88-year-old's time is over, Des Moines should erect a monument to Edna Griffin.
Chances are you don't know Griffin's name. No building or street carries it. Iowa schoolchildren don't learn it when they study the civil rights movement. And when lifetime Service Awards bearing the name of Martin Luther King Jr. were handed out to the governor and four others last week in Des Moines, Griffin wasn't one of those honored.
But seven years before Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat to a white person on a bus touched off the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Edna Griffin in Des Moines had paved the way.
In 1948, Katz Drug Store downtown, like many other eateries, didn't serve black people. Everyone knew that, including Griffin, a schoolteacher who had moved to Des Moines the year before with her husband, the late doctor, Stanley Griffin. Nonetheless, she went in with her baby and two other black people one day in July, and ordered sodas.
What happened next, or rather, what didn't - they were refused service - led to six weeks of protests and sit-ins, a lawsuit, and a court case which went all the way up to the state Supreme Court. Katz and two store managers were convicted of violating Iowa's civil rights law and an all-white jury awarded Griffin $1 in a civil suit.
Yet today, the woman once referred to as the "high priestess" of Iowa's civil rights movement sits all but forgotten in Des Moines' Ramsey Home, where I visited her last week. Sitting in a wheelchair, her gray hair pulled away from her face, her memory washed in and out like an electrical short circuit. But mention Katz and the memories come flooding back. "Just because it was right was why I was there," she said modestly. "It really wasn't a matter of great bravery."
Born in Kentucky, raised among white people on the East Coast, and educated at the all-black Fisk University in Nashville, Griffin had never before experienced discrimination directly. "It was as if you were suddenly not a citizen, not a member of the community," she recalled of the Katz incident. She and a few others wouldn't let up in their protests, though she remembers that not everyone in the black community embraced her efforts. "There's an effort to hide it, deny it," she said, referring to discrimination. A feeling of " 'Now why did you have to stir things up?' "
Evelyn Davis, another legendary Des Moines activist in whose honor a library and park have been named, felt that way at first. Young and new to Des Moines, she said she, herself, was "too chicken to protest," so she helped Griffin by running errands for her. Now she says every black person who dines out owes a debt to Griffin.
Griffin went on to found and head a chapter of the Iowa Congress of Racial Equality, organize Iowans for the 1963 King march on Washington, help start radio station KUCB and chair the NAACP's housing committee, among other things. She was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame, and awarded an honorary doctorate from Simpson College.
State Rep. Wayne Ford met the Griffins in the early 1970s when he, too, was new to town. Besides her legendary movement role, he remembers them as a rare middle-class black professional couple accessible to young people like himself.
As Griffin and I talked, a nursing home employee came in with pills and insulin, transporting us back to the present, when ordering a soda or taking a seat on a public bus are no longer subversive acts. She was surprised by the yellowing newspaper articles about the woman in her care.
We can take so much for granted now because someone else paved the way. But as Griffin herself once said, quoting a famous line, "If you don't know your history, you are condemned to repeat it."
And until we've permanently memorialized Edna Griffin for her defiance of what was accepted, for what is right, future Iowans won't know theirs either.