Edna May Griffin, often referred to as ‘the Rosa Parks of Iowa,’ was a prominent American civil rights pioneer in her state. This nickname underscores her pivotal role in civil rights campaigns in Iowa, notably the 1948 Katz Drugstore Sit-In Protests in Des Moines. Born on October 23, 1909, in Lexington, Kentucky, Griffin’s early life was marked by frequent relocations, including to New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
Griffin attended Fisk University in Nashville, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in English in 1933. While at Fisk, she participated in the protests of Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. She also met her future husband, Stanley Griffin, during this time.
In World War II, Griffin served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps at Fort Des Moines. They decided to stay in Des Moines after the War, and in 1947, he was accepted as a student at Still College of Osteopathy and Surgery (Now Des Moines University-Osteopathic Medical Center). The couple had three children: Phyllis, Linda, and Stanley. Edna Griffin joined the Iowa Progressive Party a year later and supported Henry A. Wallace’s presidential bid.
On July 7, 1948, Griffin, her daughter Phyllis, John Bibbs, and Leonard Hudson began their sit-in protest at Katz Drugstore in downtown Des Moines. That initial sit-in, where the lunch counter staff refused to serve them, led to a series of protests led by Griffin against Katz and other segregated lunch counters in Des Moines. The campaign eventually included boycotts and picketing as well as sit-ins and concluded in December 1949 when a local all-white jury found the Katz Drug Store and its manager guilty of racial discrimination. Katz agreed to end its discriminatory practices after the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the conviction on December 13, 1949.
Griffin continued her civil rights activism into the 1950s and 1960s. She founded the Des Moines chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and was selected as the organization’s first president. She helped organize 40 Iowans to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963. A month later, Griffin organized a day of mourning for the four victims of the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing on September 15, 1963. Griffin’s leadership was further demonstrated when she led a march of around 2,000 people from Iowa State University in Ames to the Iowa State House in Des Moines in response to the tragedy. Griffin also contributed to The Bystander, a local African American-owned and operated newspaper, using her voice to advocate for change. In 1998, the Flynn Building, where the Katz Drug Store was located, was renamed the Edna Griffin Building as a testament to her enduring impact. Edna May Griffin died on February 8, 2000, at the age of 80.
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“Edna May Griffin,” The University of Iowa, Details Page – The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa – The University of Iowa Libraries-Edna Griffin.pdf; “Edna May Griffin,” Iowa History Journal, Edna Griffin_ Civil Rights movement pioneer. Des Moines woman became known as the ‘Rosa Parks of Iowa.’ -Edna Griffin.pdf; “Edna May Griffin,” The Myth Busting History of Edna Griffin, The Myth-Busting History of Edna Griffin — Civil Rights Teaching-Edna Griffin.pdf.