Griffin B. Bell Fund

Griffin Bell was born in rural Sumter County on October 31, 1918, the son of Adlai Cleveland Bell and Thelma Leola Pilcher Bell. He was raised in the Shiloh community just outside Americus. Griffin attended public schools in Americus.

After attending 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. 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.

The next year the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education 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 U.S. presidential campaign, and in October 1961 President Kennedy appointed him judge of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where he actively participated as a courageous voice of justice and wisdom in the implementation of desegregation orders across the Deep South.

Bell returned to King and Spalding after fourteen years on the bench. In 1976 President Jimmy Carter nominated him to serve as the 72nd Attorney General of the United States. During his tenure he restored public confidence in the U.S. Justice Department as well as morale within the department, which had been damaged during the Watergate era under President Richard Nixon. 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 and maintained a prominent profile in community and national affairs.

Griffin Bell died on January 5, 2009, at age 90, and is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in Americus, Georgia. Judge Bell was a longstanding member of the Georgia Historical Society, and GHS now holds the Griffin Bell Papers, ca. 1952-2009, covering his years as dean of Georgia lawyers–in private legal practice in Georgia, his terms on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and his service as 72nd Attorney General of the United States. The collection also covers Judge Bell’s service on a host of committees and organization over the years.

In 2021, Larry Thompson established the Griffin B. Bell Fund at the Georgia Historical Society, ensuring that Judge Bell’s commitment to Georgia history will continue in perpetuity.