Griffin B. Bell, the Mercer graduate who as a federal judge enforced early civil rights laws in the segregated South and as U.S. attorney general restored confidence to the Justice Department following the Watergate scandal, died Monday. He was 90.
“We’ve lost a real hero. We’ve really lost somebody who helped shape the modern-day South,” said Stephen Dillard, a Macon attorney who in 2003 wrote an essay on Bell for the book, “Great American Judges: An Encyclopedia.”
The shrewd Southern lawyer grew up with Jimmy Carter and later became U.S. attorney general after Carter was elected president. He died about 10 a.m. of kidney failure, said Diana Lewis, a spokeswoman for Piedmont Hospital. He was being treated at the Atlanta hospital for complications caused by pancreatic cancer and kidney disease, which he had fought for years, she said.
Carter said he was “deeply saddened” by Bell’s death and called him a “trusted and enduring public figure.”
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“As a World War II veteran, federal appeals court judge, civil rights advocate, and U.S. attorney general in my administration, Griffin made many lasting contributions to his native Georgia and country,” the former president said in a statement.
Bell was born in Americus, 10 miles from Carter’s hometown of Plains. He attended Georgia Southwestern College in Americus, then joined the Army in 1941 before the United States entered World War II, After the war, he attended law school at Mercer University in Macon, graduating with honors in 1948. While a student, he passed the bar exam and served as the first city attorney for Warner Robins.
Throughout his career, Bell was a steadfast supporter of his alma mater, serving as a trustee and helping raise more than half a billion dollars in gifts to Mercer, school officials said Monday.
He served six terms on the university’s board of trustees, dating back to 1967, and was chairman of the board from 1991 to 1995. Bell made the motion to establish the Mercer School of Medicine. In the late 1980s, he helped steer the university through financial difficulties and over the years staunchly defended the institution when Georgia Baptists – with whom the university was affiliated for 173 years – sought to “infringe upon Mercer’s academic freedom,” the university said in a statement.
In 1983, he was named Mercer’s first distinguished university professor and was a frequent lecturer and panelist at Mercer’s law school over the years. “Griffin Bell committed his life to service — service to his country, service to the cause of justice, service to his clients and service to his alma mater, Mercer University. Over the past four decades, no one has been more committed to Mercer than Judge Bell, and no one has done more to advance the university,” Mercer President William D. Underwood said in a statement.
Bell practiced law in Savannah and Rome before joining King & Spalding, an Atlanta law firm known for its corporate clients and political connections. He worked there for more than 40 years.
He co-chaired John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in Georgia and in 1961 was appointed by Kennedy to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. He served for 15 years and was one of the court’s strongest civil rights supporters, though he opposed busing as a means of segregation.
“He did the right thing in a very difficult time,” said Dillard, who wrote the Bell essay. “He was having to enforce the Supreme Court rulings on civil rights. He was having to go back to the some of the places where he grew up and say, ‘It’s legal. It’s what’s required by law and it’s the moral thing to do.’ ... Nowadays we think it’s no big deal. Then it was an extremely trying time. You had people standing in doorways.”
Carter’s choice of his longtime friend as attorney general was considered the most controversial of his Cabinet appointments after the 1976 election. The NAACP and other civil rights groups complained that Bell, as a federal judge, didn’t force Southern schools to integrate quickly enough.
Bell served just 2 1/2 years at the Justice Department, leaving in mid-1979 — at his own request — to return to his Atlanta law firm. He remained close to the action in government by maintaining a law office in Washington. He also remained a key adviser to Carter.
“When I became attorney general, they assigned guards to me,” Bell told The Telegraph in a 2006 interview. “I wouldn’t take them. They said it was dangerous to be in Washington. I said, ‘You don’t know how dangerous it was in Mississippi and Alabama.’ ”
A sharp dresser with a Southern drawl, Bell in private practice was more sought-after than many Wall Street lawyers. His reputation for integrity and his status as a former attorney general brought him many high-profile cases.
He was hired by E.F. Hutton to investigate charges that some members of the brokerage firm had engaged in complex fraud schemes. He also headed investigations into the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, and Procter & Gamble Co. hired him to sue people who circulated false rumors that the company’s moon-and-stars logo was a satanic symbol. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush hired Bell to be his private lawyer in the Iran-Contra scandal.
Chancellor R. Kirby Godsey, who preceded Underwood as Mercer’s president and worked closely with Bell for 27 years, said in a statement that Bell was “more than an outstanding statesman or a great American.”
“He stood as a first citizen of the world whose voice and insights will shape human history for decades to come,” Godsey said.
Dillard said Bell should be celebrated as “the quintessential Southern gentleman.”
“He epitomized everything that was right and good about the South. ... It’s what America is all about, that you could have someone rise up to the heights that he rose to, solely on merit. This is a guy who grew up with nothing and ended up being one of the most powerful people in the United States. And more importantly, he used that power for the common good.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.