Griffin Bell (1918-2009)
After a period as a student at Georgia Southwestern College (later Georgia Southwestern State University), Bell left school to work in his father's tire store in 1942. In the same year, he was drafted into the army, where he served in the Quartermaster Corps and Transportation Corps during World War II (1941-45). While stationed at Fort Lee, Virginia, he met and married Mary Powell, whose family roots lay in Sumter County; they had one son, Griffin Jr. Discharged from active duty in January 1946 with the rank of major, Bell enrolled in the law school at Mercer University in Macon, where as a student he was employed by the firm Anderson, Anderson, and Walker. While still a law student he passed the Georgia bar examination and was appointed city attorney of Warner Robins. After graduating with honors in 1948, he practiced law in Savannah and then Rome. In 1953 he accepted an offer to join the Atlanta law firm of Spalding Sibley Troutman and Kelley, later renamed King and Spalding.
Bell arrived in an Atlanta perched on the edge of unprecedented economic and physical development. The city was also on the verge of the social and political tensions unleashed by the historic U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which dismantled the "separate but equal" doctrine of segregation in public education. As the managing partner at King and Spalding, Bell was drawn into Georgia political life, and in 1958 he was appointed chief of staff to Governor Ernest Vandiver. In that capacity Bell was influential in organizing the Sibley Commission, which mapped Georgia's approach to school desegregation. He helped moderate state policy concerning civil rights and was instrumental in keeping Georgia's schools open during that turbulent period.
Bell served as a chair of John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign, and in October 1961 U.S. president Kennedy appointed him judge of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where he actively participated, often as a moderate voice, in the implementation of desegregation orders across the Deep South.
Bell returned to King and Spalding after fourteen years on the bench, but in 1976 the newly elected U.S. president Jimmy Carter
Bell resigned the position in August 1979 to return to the practice of law in Atlanta. Over the next three decades he held senior management positions with King and Spalding
Bell died of kidney failure at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta on January 5, 2009.
Reg Murphy, Uncommon Sense: The Achievement of Griffin Bell (Atlanta: Longstreet, 1999).
E. R. Lanier, Georgia State University
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