A comrade remembers Griffin's fight for equality
By ROB BORSELLINO
Originally published on 2/10/2000
Word came down Tuesday that Edna Griffin was dead, and that got John Bibbs thinking. His mind wandered back to the summer of '48. He was 22, four years out of Tech High School and just back from the Navy, an experience he remembers as highly racist. "I was called nigger and everything else. I got five days in the brig for speaking up about that."
Back in Des Moines, Bibbs was going to college and feeling like he'd been pushed around enough. In those days, Bibbs says, the only difference between Iowa and Alabama was that this state didn't have "Whites Only" signs posted in the shops and restaurants. They didn't need them. Folks got the message. If Bibbs went to the movies, he had to sit in the balcony. Blacks couldn't get a decent hotel room or even a meal.
"I know that's hard for you to imagine, but if we wanted lunch downtown, we had to stand at the end of the counter and they'd sack it up and we'd take it and eat on the curb or in the alley. Between that and the way I was treated in the Navy, I just didn't have much faith in the system."
So Bibbs was looking around. He needed an outlet for his anger. He fell in with the Progressive Party, Henry Wallace's deal, and at a meeting he met a woman named Edna Griffin.
"She was a doctor's wife, and that meant she could do things others couldn't. She could step out and say things. She was a leader, so articulate, so intelligent. I had so much respect for that woman. She motivated me to do what I did."
Then, on a July day 52 years ago, Griffin was refused service at the lunch counter of Katz Drug Store. Bibbs was right beside her. The two of them - along with the late Leonard Hudson - had what they needed to shove this city's racism into everybody's face.
It was perfect. Katz's was high-profile, on Seventh and Locust, right in the center of the city.
What followed were pickets and sit-ins, civil lawsuits and a criminal case that nailed the store's general manager for violating the state's civil-rights law.
This was seven years before Rosa Parks refused to get in the back of a Montgomery bus and 15 years before King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
Bibbs remembers it as a lonely battle fought mostly by African-American women. Black men had to support their families and were worried about being blacklisted. Few whites signed on, and this city's black establishment was no help, Bibbs says. For the most part, they kept their mouths shut.
"They didn't like our tactics, and they didn't want us fooling around with tradition. They thought we were troublemakers. But Mrs. Griffin didn't care. She wanted people to understand what the coloreds were saddled with."
When the protests died down and it was time for Bibbs to again focus on his life -raise a family, earn a living -he realized there was no going back. Folks in this town knew who he was and what he did.
To many people, that wasn't a good thing.
Even with his education, he couldn't find a decent job. For a while he couldn't find any job. Sometimes the family had to eat whatever they could pull from the garden. If all they had were dandelions, that's what they ate.
Then he got work as an orderly at the VA hospital. From there he went to a packing plant -sweeping up, shaking hides, working on the kill floor, doing jobs he calls menial.
Eventually he signed on with Iowa Power and Light and by the time he retired in the late '80s he was a supervisor.
In recent years there's been a lot of attention paid to that 1948 protest. A plaque honors Griffin at the site of the drugstore where she was denied service, and she received an honorary doctorate, medals and all kinds of awards. Two years ago -on the 50th anniversary of the lunch-counter incident -Griffin, Bibbs and Hudson were recognized by the state.
Now, with Edna Griffin's passing, the story's back on the front page and Bibbs says that's a good thing, an important thing.
"We all knew we had a problem, but it was Mrs. Griffin who did something about it. We owe her. Let's not forget that."