The Myth-Busting History of Edna Griffin

By Katy Swalwell and Jennifer Gallagher

Edna Griffin. Source:  University of Iowa Libraries .

Edna Griffin. Source: University of Iowa Libraries.

Iowan Edna Griffin’s life’s work provides a powerful counter narrative to the traditional framing of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. She was a woman living in the North who used court cases, boycotts, sit-ins, and protests to improve her community starting well before 1954. Through her decades of activism, she strategically employed a range of tactics from radical direct action to more moderate approaches rooted in a politics of respectability. She also made connections between racism and other social concerns like war, labor struggles, education, and criminal justice.

Brief Bio

Edna Griffin, born in Kentucky in 1909, grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. She studied sociology at Fisk University where she met her husband, Stanley, and participated in several protests.

She marched against Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia and was arrested for joining teachers on strike. She also joined the Communist Party.

After living in several other cities, she and her husband moved to Des Moines, Iowa, in 1947 for Stanley to attend medical school. Within the first year of living in Des Moines, Edna had her first of three children and was elected to leadership positions in the Iowa Progressive Party and the Des Moines branch of the Communist Party.

On July 7, 1948, Edna, along with her one year-old daughter and two other African Americans, were denied service at Katz Drug Store when Griffin ordered an ice cream soda. This wasn’t the first time Katz had denied service to African Americans and, after this particular incident, Griffin became involved in a decades-long struggle to desegregate the counter service by organizing boycotts and protests in downtown Des Moines. Griffin and others then became key players in two successful suits brought against Katz, one a criminal trial that fined Katz $50 (on Oct 7, 1948) and the other a civil suit in which an all-white jury found in favor of Griffin and awarded her $1 in damages (on Oct 15, 1949).

Edna spent much of the rest of her life as a labor union, anti-war, and racial justice activist.

The FBI kept a file on Edna Griffin for 17 years as part of COINTELPRO (COunter INTELligence PROgram), a covert and often illegal surveillance program intended to infiltrate, discredit, and disrupt Left-leaning domestic political organizations. Edna passed away in 2000.


This lesson is designed to help students challenge the myths of the traditional narrative through the life story of Iowan Edna Griffin.