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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Griffin, Edna Mae Williams
(October 23, 1909–February 8, 2000)

–civil rights activist—was dubbed by the Iowa State Civil Rights Commission as "the Rosa Parks of Iowa" for her leadership in the movement to end segregation in Des Moines in the late 1940s. Although Griffin is best remembered for leading a legal and political battle against the Katz Drug Store after she and two friends were denied service at a lunch counter on July 7, 1948, her entire life was committed to advocating for human rights: from protesting against Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia while a student at Fisk University in the early 1930s to joining a march against nuclear weapons development in the 1980s.

    Edna Williams was born in Kentucky in 1909, grew up on a New Hampshire farm, and attended prestigious Fisk University in the 1930s. While at Fisk, the leading predominantly black university of the time, Williams met her future husband, Stanley Griffin. The Griffins moved to Des Moines in 1947 when Stanley was accepted as a student at Still College of Osteopathy and Surgery (now Des Moines University–Osteopathic Medical Center). Stanley Griffin would be one of the first black physicians in Iowa, and his successful practice afforded Edna the opportunity to commit her time and resources to raising the Griffins' three children and getting involved in social and political causes.

    Dismayed both at the second-class citizenship accorded to African Americans in Des Moines and the evident apathy of the black community in Des Moines toward such treatment, Griffin became an active member of a small but committed group of activists in Des Moines, joining the Iowa Progressive Party in 1948 and supporting Henry A. Wallace, himself an Iowan, in his presidential bid.

    On a sweltering July day in 1948 Griffin, along with fellow Progressive Party members Leonard Hudson and John Bibbs (as well as her infant daughter Phyllis), entered Katz Drug Store and attempted to order ice cream, but were told by the management, "We don't serve coloreds here."That rebuke inspired Griffin to lead a movement to force Katz to obey state law and treat all patrons equally. Griffin employed a variety of tactics: she led boycotts outside the store, formed a Committee to End Jim Crow at Katz, organized sit-ins, and printed up handbills for distribution to would-be Katz customers. In addition, Griffin, as well as Bibbs and Hudson, filed civil suits against Katz and testified in a criminal case brought by the state of Iowa against the drugstore.

    Ultimately, the struggle ended in a legal victory for Griffin and Katz's agreement to cease denying service to black patrons. Griffin's first major activist effort in Iowa led to the virtual elimination of discrimination against African Americans in public accommodations in Des Moines. Yet Griffin's commitment to social justice permeated her life's work. After the victory against Katz, Griffin continued the fight for civil and human rights. Most notably, she participated in the national civil rights movement by founding and serving as the first president of the Des Moines chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Among her first efforts in that capacity was to organize a day of mourning in September 1963 for the four Birmingham children killed in a church bombing by white supremacists. Two thousand protestors marched from Ames to the statehouse in Des Moines in a walk of "penitence and mourning."Griffin also fought to persuade lawmakers to support civil rights legislation and sought to persuade local authorities to address the problem of police brutality.

    Griffin's legacy was rich: she was a regular contributor to the Iowa Bystander (Iowa's statewide African American newspaper), organized a group of Iowans to attend the March on Washington in 1963, spoke out against housing discrimination, and was an ardent advocate for early childhood education.

    In recognition of her efforts on behalf of the dispossessed, Griffin was elected to the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame in 1998. Soon afterward, the state of Iowa placed a plaque commemorating her efforts on the corner of Seventh and Locust in Des Moines, location of the former Katz Drug Store. Nearby is the Edna Griffin Building. Most recently, a new bridge over I-235 in Des Moines was named the "Edna Griffin Bridge" in her honor.

    Edna Griffin died in Des Moines in February 2000, but her struggles for civil rights continue to benefit all Iowans and all Americans.
Sources The Edna Griffin Papers are held in the Iowa Women's Archives, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. The record of the legal proceedings in the Katz Drug Store case are in "State of Iowa vs. M. C. Katz: Appellant's Abstract of Record," Articles and Abstracts 241 Iowa 20, June 1949, University of Iowa Law Library, Iowa City. See also Bill Silag et al., eds., Outside In: African-American History in Iowa, 1838–2000 (2001).
Contributor: Noah Lawrence

Cite as: Lawrence, Noah. "Griffin, Edna Mae Williams" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 15 September 2014