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Next wednesday is the 6th aniversary of the death of Edna Griffin, often refered to as "the Rosa Parks of Iowa". Here's a few stories from the Des Moines register about her and the lunch counter protests at the Katz Drug Store here in Des Moines in 1948

Griffin, Edna

Civil-rights leader

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.

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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.

Marking a civil-rights victory

D.M. honors those who fought, won

Edna Griffin sits amid friends and family at the site of Des Moines' former Katz Drug Store, where she was denied service 50 years ago because of her skin color.

Originally published 7/8/1998

Fifty years after being denied service at a downtown drugstore soda fountain because of the color of their skin, Des Moines civil-rights pioneers were honored Tuesday with proclamations, a plaque - and, fittingly, an ice-cream social.

On July 7, 1948, the general manager of Katz Drug Store refused to serve ice cream to Edna Griffin and her baby daughter, Phyllis, along with John Bibbs and Leonard Hudson.

The incident sparked picketing, civil lawsuits and a successful criminal case against Katz for violating Iowa's civil-rights law. The 1884 statute made it a crime to discriminate in public accommodations. The state Supreme Court affirmed Katz's conviction.

On Tuesday, at the site of the former drugstore on the corner of Locust and Seventh streets, local and state officials dedicated a plaque honoring the civil-rights victory and served ice cream to the lunchtime crowd of more than 100 people.

Later, a re-enactment of the incident took place at the Iowa Historical Building, as well as reflections on the significance of the event and a reunion of the surviving protesters.

"It is truly a celebration of courage on the part of some very special people -and progress, progress for our state," said Lt. Gov. Joy Corning, who leads the state's diversity committee.

The Katz Drug Store protest occurred 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-rights activists throughout the country.

The Iowa Civil Rights Commission exhaustively researched the drugstore protest to establish a record of the event, educate Iowans and stimulate dialogue on race relations.

At the plaque dedication, Rudy Simms, regional director of the National Conference for Community and Justice, thanked Griffin, Bibbs and the late Hudson for their courage and persistence.

He also noted the sacrifice that Bibbs made to take part in the protests. Bibbs has said he had trouble finding work because of his civil-rights role.

"During that time I was very discouraged," Bibbs, 71, said after the ceremony. "I had few friends. I thought for sure I'd have to leave the city. I couldn't find employment. . . . Somehow, we managed to survive."

Griffin, 87, was surrounded by her family at the ceremony, including Phyllis Griffin, the daughter who was 16 months old and present at Katz with her mother that day 50 years ago.

The daughter described her mother's strategy.

"She was very, very angry," she said. "And the way she got even was through action that was clear, decisive -and people understood exactly what she was going after."

Edna Griffin did the right thing

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.

A comrade remembers Griffin's fight for equality

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."

Edna Griffin, 1909-2000

'It was not hard for me to stand up'

Originally published on 2/9/2000

Edna Griffin, an Iowa civil-rights pioneer, died Tuesday morning at the Ramsey Home in Des Moines.

Griffin, 90, is best known for her fight in 1948 against Katz Drug Store in downtown Des Moines, which refused to serve blacks at its lunch counter. Griffin staged sit-ins, picketed in front of the store and filed charges against the store's owner, Maurice Katz. He was fined, and the Iowa Supreme Court made it illegal to deny service based on race.

Griffin's son, Stanley Griffin Jr., said his mother spent her life working tirelessly on behalf of others.

"She has been a champion for everyone," Griffin said. "She's a person who would help anyone in need. That's what I love about my mother."

On Saturday, Griffin was inducted into the Iowa African-American Hall of Fame. She's a member of the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame and received the Christine Wilson Medal for Equality and Justice. She received the George Washington Carver Meritorious Award for Race Relations and an honorary doctorate from Simpson College.

In an interview with The Des Moines Register on Jan. 25, Griffin said she was pleased with the progress blacks have made. She said people have to keep working together for change.

"It was not hard for me to stand up," she said of her fight against racism. "I felt if things didn't change, the world would come to an end."

Griffin founded and led a chapter of the Iowa Congress of Racial Equality. She organized Iowans to attend the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 march on Washington, D.C., and helped start the former radio station KUCB. A plaque in her honor is at the site where Katz Drug Store once stood at Seventh and Locust streets. Last spring, Des Moines Mayor Preston Daniels proclaimed May 15 as Edna Griffin Day.

Mary Jane Odell said her friend of more than 25 years deserves recognition. They met when Odell interviewed Griffin and her husband, Stanley, in 1976 for Iowa Public Television.

"She was such a joy," Odell said. "What a wonder she was. What a wonderful soul she had."

Odell said Griffin's triumph over Katz Drug Store is the equivalent of what Rosa Parks did to end discrimination in the South -and it came seven years earlier.

"She was a courageous and very intelligent woman," Odell said. "She was a brave and determined woman who was on the right side."

Gary Lawson organized the Iowa African-American Honors Banquet that honored Griffin Saturday. Griffin's daughter, Phyllis, accepted the award on her behalf. Lawson said Griffin's induction will become part of a permanent display at the Iowa African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center being built in Cedar Rapids.

"She has done things that created openings for all of us," Lawson said. "It's a great loss for everyone."

Griffin, who was born in Lexington, Ky., stepped into the role of activist during her early adulthood. She received a teaching degree from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., where she met her husband, who preceded her in death in 1980.

Survivors include a son, Stanley Griffin Jr. of San Jose, Calif., and two daughters, Linda Griffin of Los Angeles, Calif., and Phyllis Griffin of Chicago, Ill.

The cause of death has not yet been disclosed. Funeral arrangements are being handled by Hamilton's Funeral Home.

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