I first met Bob Griffith in the Fall of 1967 when—for reasons and under circumstances that are still inexplicable to me—the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, hired more than 700 new faculty members. Bob and I were in that group.
Those were difficult times in Athens, Georgia, and in the rest of the country as well. 1968 was a tumultuous year with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the withdrawal of Lyndon Johnson from the presidential race, and the National Democratic Convention in Chicago. The civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement were reaching their height in the country. These were times and circumstances that sorely tested a person’s principles, integrity, and courage.
Bob immediately began to challenge the status quo in Athens and in the state. He was instrumental in helping to break the stranglehold of the “good old boys” and the segregationist governor, Lester Maddox, on the Georgia delegation to the National Democratic Convention by helping to organize a “challenge delegation” to the 1968 convention. The public schools in Clarke County/Athens were still racially segregated at the time along with the YMCA, the YWCA, and the Boys Club, which were supported by the local Community Chest (an earlier version of the United Way). At the University of Georgia, there was an administrative campaign and payroll deduction for contributions to this drive for the support of the segregated agencies. Those in power resisted change, but Bob set about changing things. At no small risk to his own welfare, he demonstrated his commitment to social justice and racial equality by orchestrating and participating in demonstrations, boycotts, and lawsuits. He courageously stood by his principles in the face of armed National Guard troops, armed county deputies, mace, tear gas, jail, public attacks in the media, and threatened reprisals. His leadership was a major factor in eventually bringing about a successful resolution of these situations with the integration of the schools and the public agencies. AND his noble principles were always tempered by an equal amount of genuine compassion for people.
Bob also helped organize the Georgia Chapter of the Vietnam Moratorium Committee and teach-ins on campus and in the community to educate people about the history of the United States’ involvement in Southeast Asia. He was a major influence in keeping the large, anti-war demonstrations at the University of Georgia non-violent.
Bob Griffith not only taught about and wrote about history. He helped make history. The world is a better place because Bob Griffith was in it. It is a lesser place because he is no longer in it.
On a personal level, no one could ever hope for a better friend. He was always supportive, positive, reliable, and nurturing. He was a rock. He was a safe harbor in time of personal storm. He was an extraordinarily rare human being. I am fortunate that he was my friend, and I am a better man because he was my friend. I admired him. I respected him. I valued him. I loved him.