Judge Griffin B. Bell 1918-2009

BootlePhoto of Judge Griffin B. Bell courtesy of Wikipedia.

Griffin Boyette Bell was born on October 31, 1918 in Sumter County, Georgia to Thelma Leola Pilcher and Adlai Cleveland Bell.  Bell spent his childhood in Americus, Georgia, where his father was an entrepreneur who worked as a cotton farmer before starting his own tire business.  After high school, he attended Georgia Southwestern College for one year before being drafted into the army in 1942. While stationed in Fort Lee, Virginia, Bell married Mary Powell, with whom he had one son, Griffin Bell, Jr.  Upon his return from World War II, Bell enrolled at Mercer Law School and began working at the Anderson, Anderson, and Walker Law Firm. Bell graduated with honors in 1948 and practiced law in Savannah and Rome, Georgia before moving to Atlanta, Georgia to join King and Spalding, a well-respected law firm in the city.

Throughout his childhood Bell attended Jim Crow schools and lived in a world where racial segregation was not only the norm but also the rule.  In a 2008 interview with National Public Radio, he said it was after World War II that he began thinking about desegregation.  Bell recounted that after driving past the run-down African-American public schools in rural Georgia, he recognized justice had not entirely been achieved back home in the states.

In 1954, the famous Brown v. Board of Education case was decided, declaring
unconstitutional “separate but equal” schooling for African-American and white students. This decision would affect every Georgia citizen, including Governor Ernest Vandiver. Vandiver was a hard-line segregationist who ran for Governor in 1958 on the promise that “not one” African-American student would enter a white public school during his tenure.  He ran on this pledge against the behest of Bell who felt the tides were changing.  Bell had advised Vandiver, “to promise only that he would use every legal means to maintain segregation.”  However, following the United States Supreme Court declaration that even the threat of violence could not prevent desegregation in the schools, Vandiver realized that school desegregation was inevitable, despite his campaign promise. He thus appointed Bell as his chief of staff and asked him to organize a committee which would help to guide the course of desegregation in Georgia. In response, Bell recommended creating a commission to allow the public to have a voice.

Named for Chairman John Sibley, Bell’s Sibley commission would be vital in Georgia’s effort to desegregate schools with less tumult than other states. Georgia Senator Herman E. Talmadge reported that Bell was an important voice of moderation in the meetings and in the state government during this period. At this time many Southern politicos were threatening to close public schools in order to keep them segregated and Talmadge believed Bell’s moderate counsel, “was instrumental in preventing the schools of my State from being closed.” According to former United States Civil Rights Commission Chairman Eugene Patterson, Bell’s leadership was vital in not only keeping schools open but in keeping Georgia schools from becoming a place of mobs and violence similar to those in Alabama.  Furthermore, Patterson said, Bell took his moderate stance at great personal and political risk.

The Sibley Commission held hearings in each congressional district regarding integration. The hearings could be very chaotic, but Bell was always encouraged by witnessing the democratic system in action.  According to Bell, “people spoke, it was an amazing thing in a democracy why people get stirred up they’ll speak.  And they were speaking both ways.” Perhaps most importantly, many of these meetings were biracial, involving both African-Americans and whites, something nearly unheard of in the South at that time. Bell said these meetings made clear that previous laws prohibiting desegregation and closing any integrated schools in Georgia had to be repealed—despite Vandiver’s previous declaration that desegregation would not occur during his term. The Sibley Commission ultimately declared each county should decide, through public election, whether to integrate their schools—thus instigating a series of court cases surrounding county desegregation.

Bell would be the one to hear the majority of these cases after being appointed Judge of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by President John F. Kennedy in 1960. During his 15 years on the bench Bell would hear over 140 school desegregation cases. According to Bell, the Supremacy Clause in the constitution, which declares the Constitution, federal laws, and treaties to be the ultimate law in the United States, helped guide many of his decisions. In a 2008 interview with NPR, he recalled telling school boards the Supremacy Clause, “was as binding over them as it was me.” Judge Elbert P. Tuttle sent Bell what would become one of his most famous cases in 1972. In this case, regarding the public school system in Augusta, Georgia, Bell actually read the Supremacy Clause to the School Board and threatened to turn the control of the schools over to a different body if they did not comply to desegregation orders—something he had done in other cases.

Another famous case combined Harris v. Gibson with Stell v. Savannah-Chatham County Board of Education. The Harris case centered on an all-white academy’s injunction prohibiting the admittance of six African-American students, while the Stell case was a more traditional desegregation case surrounding public schools. Hearing these cases on appeal, Bell “made a decisive declaration for equal rights for blacks…ruling against the segregationist establishment” and thus showing how the highest ranks in Georgia were coming around to desegregation.  In addition to the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, Bell made frequent use of the Equal Protection Clause. When questioned about his commitment to the Equal Protection Clause he stated, “I have often said that if we did not have the equal protection clause in the Constitution, we would have to make up one. The country could not hold together without the equal protection clause.”

Bell continued to serve on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals until 1976, when he returned to practicing law.  Less than one year later, he was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to become Attorney General.  During the difficult two-week confirmation process, Bell was forced to endure many charges against his integrity and attacks claiming he did not move desegregation along fast enough in the 5th Circuit Court area. Still, many colleagues stood up for Bell’s record, including Patterson, the former chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and Andrew Young, an African-American from Georgia who was then a United Nations ambassador designate. Despite the difficult confirmation, in his role as Attorney General, Bell would help to place a number of women and African-Americans on court benches through Affirmative Action. Bell believed representation of minorities on the bench was vital to instilling citizens’ confidence in the law.

As Attorney General, Bell also worked toward rebuilding America’s faith in the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the years following Nixon’s Watergate scandal. In an effort to regain America’s trust, he advocated for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, passed in 1978, which placed greater limits on the United States government’s rights to spy on its citizens. While he resigned in 1979 to return to his law practice, Bell would later declare his time as Attorney General as, “the best job I ever had.”

Bell’s resignation did not stop him from being politically involved. In 1980, he represented the American Delegation to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and in 1982 he worked on the Attorney Generals’ National Task Force on Violent Crime. Bell also became an advisor to the President George H.W. Bush during the Iran-Contra Affair. Further, Bell contributed beyond the political sphere.  His commitment to his alma mater, Mercer University, lasted throughout his life as he served on the Board of Trustees for over 30 years and ultimately was awarded with the school’s Distinguished Service Award in Trusteeship in 1999.  Bell also published Taking Care of the Law in 1982 and Footnotes in History: A Primer on the American Political Character in 2008.

Bell passed away on January 5, 2009 from pancreatic cancer. Bell will be remembered by many as one of the most influential federal judges of the last 100 years.  As Eugene Patterson declared in 1977, Bell was, “an able and incorruptible lawyer of the highest character and integrity and a principled man, who on the balance of his actions over the last two decades, can be depended upon to demand that civil rights laws by obeyed.”

Maurice C. Daniels, Ed. D with assistance from Michelle D. Black.