ATLANTA – Griffin B. Bell, the shrewd Southern lawyer who grew up with Jimmy Carter and became U.S. attorney general after Carter was elected president, died at an Atlanta hospital Monday. He was 90.
Bell died at 9:40 a.m., said Les Zucke, a spokesman for Atlanta law firm King & Spalding where Bell worked as a senior counsel. Piedmont Hospital spokeswoman Diana Lewis said he died of kidney failure.
President Carter said he was "deeply saddened" by the death of his longtime friend, who he called a "trusted and enduring public figure."
"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," he said in a statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with his family."
Carter's choice of his longtime friend as attorney general was considered the most controversial of his Cabinet choices 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. And they cited Bell's tenure as chief of staff for Georgia Gov. Ernest Vandiver, who campaigned in 1958 on a segregation platform. Bell also was accused of belonging to segregated social clubs.
But Carter called Bell's civil rights record superb, and many black Georgians — including U.N. ambassador designate Andrew Young — came forward to support him.
"Frankly, I prefer a Southerner who has been struggling with the problem of civil rights actively for several years over a Northern intellectual liberal," Young said at the time.
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