Letter from the Editor

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Toast an ice cream soda to Edna Griffin

On a hot summer day in July, Edna Griffin walked into a drug store lunch counter and ordered an ice cream soda, and before she left, life as it was would never be quite the same.

I was thrilled that a dramatic interpretation of Edna Griffin's efforts has been created as part of the 40th anniversary of the Iowa Civil Rights Act this past week.

I first encountered Griffin's story while studying sociology at Iowa State. She became - and she still is - a hero in my eyes. The next I heard of her was when she passed away in 2000. How I wish I would have known her.

If you search the Internet, you'll find few mentions of Edna. There are few pictures around, no speeches recorded, no statues, no streets in her honor; and I seriously doubt if her acquired anonymity bothered her.

It should bother us, though. Because Edna Griffin helped to change everything, and we could perhaps use a few more people like her even today.

That Katz Drug store in Des Moines turned away Mrs. Griffin, her 1-year-old daughter and two friends on that hot July day. It's owner did not serve "coloreds," he said.

Edna wasn't to be trifled with. She was boundlessly energetic, fearless, articulate, stubborn - and had what too many of her fellow blacks at the time did not - the education and experience to do something about the racism they felt.

So, seven years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery; 15 long years before Rev. King gave his groundbreaking "I Have a Dream" speech, Edna Griffin had had enough.

She refused to accept the store owner's edict, and when forced to leave, she marched out and sued him, and pushed it all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court. She personally led peaceful sit-ins and picketed the drug store.

It is hard to imagine it now, but this was an era when blacks in Iowa could in many cases sit only in theater balconies, may have been denied use of public restrooms, let alone access to the more upscale hotels or restaurants. And at the lunch counter, they were supposed to stand at the end and wait for food to be put in a bag for them to go out and eat standing in the alley or sitting on the curb.

It was no so long ago.

An all-white jury awarded Edna just $1 in a civil suit, but that was enough to establish a precedent against public discrimination in Iowa that is in place to this day. Efforts like hers finally led to the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

As a young college student, Edna was involved in protesting Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia. She was arrested for marching with striking teachers in a picket line. After her experience at the lunch counter, she went on to found a chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality for Iowa, and to organize Iowans for Dr. King's March on Washington. She and her husband raised the funds for about 40 people from this state to join that 1963 march.

At age 75, still fearless, the Iowa woman sat in the middle of a highway in Nebraska to block a shipment of nuclear warheads to an Army base.

If you get a chance, walk over to Seventh and Locust in old downtown Des Moines next time you are in the city. That's where Katz Drug once stood. Picture what it might have been like for a person unwelcome for their skin color alone, and feel the energy.

You might read of Iowa's contributions, from the underground railroad to the Freedom Riders to today's Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

Iowa has come a long way since Edna first took on her work here, but perhaps it is not yet done. Not while prejudice still exists against people who speak a different language or follow a different religion. The faces have certainly changed - today they may be originated from a small village in Mexico, Laos, Sudan. They may be faces of someone who has been abused because of their sexual orientation, or denied opportunity because of a physical or mental disability. On a hot July day in 2005, they still have feelings, just like Edna Griffin felt that hot July day in '48.

Each in our own time tend to become a bit complacent, Dubuque civil rights director Kelly Larson recently noted. As compared to the past, we think of ourselves as fully enlightened. But there is work yet to do, especially in Storm Lake, which has been the leader in this state in issues of multiculturalism for 30 years. Iowa's future hopes for vitality in part remain simmering in that mixing pot.

Back in the day, I'll bet Edna Griffin knew of an old saying that is still just as true today. "No one is free," it goes, "until we are all free."