Griffin in her Women’s Army Corp uniform, photo courtesy of Fort Des Moines Museum and Education Center (source and owner of photo).
Over 10 years before the civil rights sit-ins of the 1960s, like the one at the Woolworth’s in North Carolina, a coalition organized by a Communist Party member and others fought to desegregate a drug store in Des Moines, Iowa.
In 1948 Iowa had a problem with racism. The state was north of the Mason-Dixon line, and many considered discrimination to be “not that much of a problem.” But a string of drug stores owned by the Katz family had been accused numerous times of violating civil rights laws; one letter to the NAACP described Katz’s treatment of Black people, saying, “Negro WACs and Nurses, even when wearing Uncle Sam’s uniforms, do not belong to the human race.” The NAACP tried and failed to prosecute Katz for the misconduct numerous times, each ending in acquittal or the accuser dropping out due to lack of witnesses.
Enter Edna Griffin.
On a hot day in July, Edna, John Bibbs, and Leonard Hudson entered Katz Drug Store in downtown Des Moines. Griffin and Bibbs took seats and ordered ice cream sundaes, but they were informed that the staff was not permitted to serve them because of their race. Eighteen months later, under the pressure of court losses and mass mobilizations and boycotts by a Black-white alliance against fascism organized by Edna Griffin, the Progressive Party, and the NAACP, Katz would agree to end all discriminatory practices.
Edna Griffin moved to Iowa in 1947, with her husband Stanley. The pair had already been active in Nashville in fighting against fascism and for better wages for teachers, and they had joined the Communist Party. They were struck by the status quo of discrimination in Iowa. The vast majority of Iowans did not believe there was a problem. Indeed, while 83% of African American lawyers thought illegal discrimination was common, 87% of county attorneys thought it was not. Numerous court battles had already been fought and lost on account of “no witnesses.” In a state with a 99% white population, Black Iowans needed a way to convince white Iowans that discrimination existed, that it was a problem they should be concerned about, and that solving the problem depended on them.
In consultation with the NAACP and members of the Progressive Party, Edna hatched a strategy to win in the courts and in the court of public opinion. The first step was to make Edna seem relatable to white Iowans. While the defense tried to paint her as a professional agitator who caused a disturbance, Edna’s legal team drove home the point that Edna was a respected, educated, middle-income young mother whose actions were perfectly reasonable for a hot day in June and that the central question of the case was whether the law had been broken. Of course, Edna was a tireless “agitator” whose Communist affiliation caught the attention of the FBI, but the perception that she could have been anybody was crucial to not only gaining sympathy with the all-white jury but also to addressing the thrust of the question in court: was this discrimination under the law, and did it live up to the democratic ideals Iowans held about their state? Griffin tied the battle against discrimination to the battle against fascism, an idea that held a bit of weight just a few years after World War II. At the trial Griffin stated, “I volunteered in the armed forces knowing full it was a jim crow army, to help establish the equal dignity and equal rights of my people.”
Along with the battle in the courts, Griffin also fought in the street, organizing a series of protests, sit-ins, and boycotts designed to hurt Katz’s business. The two-prong strategy was necessary because, as Griffin put it, “Experience indicates that court action alone has not and cannot stop jim crow because the penalty exacted under the law is not sufficiently heavy.” As in the trials, the argument in the streets was made broadly as a fight against the forces of tyranny rather than as a narrow fight at one drug store. One brochure handed out during this time was titled, “Bill of Rights — Hitler Failed but Katz Is Trying” and read:
A lawsuit is pending against Katz Drugstore but we want you to know why Jim Crow undermines the rights of every citizen, not just the victims. The “master race” idea poisons the mind with hate, distrust, and suspicion. This turns the minds of the people from high prices, low wages, and no housing to violence against one another. It happened in Germany, and it can happen here.
Protest signs read, “The Bullets Weren’t for White’s Only. Don’t Buy at Katz” and “Counter Service for Whites Only. This is Hitler’s Old Baloney. Don’t Buy at Katz.”
The two-prong strategy — which engaged the masses to demonstrate that everyone had an interest in ending the problem of racism — won the fight overall. Griffin won a criminal case against Katz in 1948, but the drugstore owners continued to bar African Americans until December 3, 1949, after more than a year of additional civil lawsuits and street protests.
The success in either field of struggle depended on wins in both, and the appeal to white people’s broad collective interest rather than their individual self-interest was a winning strategy. The trials provided the context and legitimacy, and the work in the streets provided the economic and political force to make it happen. This strategy would prove itself time and again in the civil rights moments to follow throughout the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps most notably with figures like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.
Edna Griffin would continue to play vital roles in progressive fights for decades after this moment, with the Black-white progressive coalition built during the drugstore struggle playing a key role in the Henry Wallace campaign, in desegregation fights nationally, against the atomic bomb, against the Korean War, for unionization, and in many other fights.
Perhaps the most relevant endorsement comes from the FBI agent charged with tracking her: “She should not be underestimated as an individual. She is a very capable and intelligent person. She manages to get along with people and is always fighting for some noble cause.”
Noah Lawrence, “‘Since It Is My Right, I Would Like to Have It’: Edna Griffin and the Katz Drug Store Desegregation Movement.” Annals of Iowa 67, no. 4, pp. 298–330, 2008.
Travis Smith is a pest control worker and father in Iowa who became an active member of the Communist Party in 2019 where he's been working to build the Edna Griffin Club, so named for a famous Iowan activist and Party member. His interests outside of politics include woodworking, sailing, and PC gaming. His son enjoys attending protests and fiddling with Daddy's boat
This article was first published in Communist Party USA