When Edna Griffin died on Feb. 8, 2000, word quickly spread across the nation via news services. That's something the civil-rights pioneer couldn't have imagined on a hot July day in 1948 when she sat down at a Des Moines lunch counter, ordered an ice cream soda and was refused service because she was black.
Katz Drug Store in downtown Des Moines told Griffin the facility was "not equipped to serve colored people." At the time she was with her 1-year-old daughter and two friends.
Griffin led sit-ins and picketed the drugstore, and sued owner Maurice Katz. The Iowa Supreme Court backed her claim. Katz was found in violation of an 1884 Iowa statute making it a crime to discriminate in public accommodations. In a civil case, an all-white jury awarded Griffin $1.
Griffin, who was born in Kentucky, grew up in New Hampshire as the daughter of a dairy-farm supervisor. She graduated from Fisk University in 1933, married a doctor, Stanley Griffin, and became a schoolteacher. The couple moved to Des Moines in 1947.
Griffin founded a chapter of the Iowa Congress for Racial Equality and organized Iowans for the march on Washington led by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. At 75, she went to Nebraska and sat "in the middle of the highway to stop nuclear warheads from being shipped into the SAC Army base," she said.
She was named to the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame and the Iowa African-American Hall of Fame. Des Moines Mayor Preston Daniels declared May 15 as Edna Griffin Day in 1998.
Also in 1998, the Flynn Building, where the Katz Drug Store was once located, was renamed to honor Griffin.