A lifelong Democrat, Griffin was a native of Bainbridge, Georgia. He served as the 72nd Governor of Georgia from 1955 to 1959, where he supported educational segregation and opposed the integration of Georgia schools. After the end of his gubernatorial tenure, he returned to his native Bainbridge and entered the real estate business, helping to found the Bainbridge College in 1970. He worked on the college's board of directors and died from lung cancer in 1982.
Griffin was born in Bainbridge, Georgia and graduated from The Citadel in 1929. He taught in Virginia for a short time before moving back to Bainbridge.
In 1934, Griffin, a lifelong Democrat, was elected to the Georgian general assembly. Two years later, he failed in an attempt to be elected to the House of Representatives. After that, he served in the administration of Governor Eurith D. Rivers, rising to the post of executive secretary. He also owned the Bainbridge radio station, WMGR, which was established in the late 1940s. The call sign was for Marvin Griffin Radio.
When the United States entered World War II, Griffin was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, and later rose to the rank of brigadier general. He was appointed adjutant general of the Georgia National Guard in 1944, serving in that position until 1947.
Griffin became the first elected Lieutenant Governor of Georgia to serve after he won a special election in 1948. The first person elected as Georgia's lieutenant governor was Melvin E. Thompson, who never took the office but instead claimed the office of governor after the death of Governor-elect Eugene Talmadge. Griffin was elected to a full term in 1950.
Griffin was seen as the successor to Governor Herman Talmadge, and he won the governorship in 1954 before runoff elections were required in Georgia. Griffin received a plurality of 36.3 percent of the ballots cast. Melvin E. Thompson, Griffin's predecessor as lieutenant governor, trailed with 25.1 percent. Another primary candidate was the later Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr. As governor, Griffin was a staunch segregationist. He spoke out against the Brown v. Board of Education decision and pledged to keep Georgia's schools segregated "come hell or high water."
In 1958, Griffin, who was a segregationist and accused of being racist, took advantage of the intense media coverage surrounding the Springhill mining disaster in Springhill, Nova Scotia, Canada to promote tourism to his state by offering a group of survivors free vacations to Jekyll Island. However, to the segregationist governor's chagrin, one of the rescued miners was black, resulting in a public relations nightmare.
Much controversy preceded the 1956 Sugar Bowl, where the Pitt Panthers, including African-American player Bobby Grier, were scheduled to meet the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. There was controversy over whether Grier should be allowed to play, and whether Georgia Tech should even play at all due to Governor Griffin's opposition to integration. In anticipation of Bobby Grier's presence, in December 1955, Griffin publicly sent a telegram to his state's Board of Regents. Griffin implored teams from Georgia not to engage in racially integrated events which had African Americans either as participants or as spectators.
A large contingent from the New Orleans community, as well as many related to Georgia Tech, openly fought to bar either Grier, Pitt, or the Yellow Jacket team from the game. However, students and football players from the Atlanta-based school, civil rights leaders, as well as a large number of the Pitt community, succeeded in ensuring that the game took place.
Griffin's term was marred by charges of corruption. According to Atlanta historian Frederick Allen, Griffin was "a man of prodigious charm and wit and also one of the most corrupt public officials ever to hold office in Georgia." Several administration members were found guilty of crimes and Griffin was investigated in 1960 by a grand jury, which returned no true bills.
In 1962, Griffin ran once more for governor but lost in the primary to a moderate candidate, Carl Sanders. Griffin received 332,746 votes (39 percent) to Sanders' 494,978 (58.7 percent). Thereafter, Griffin largely retired from politics.
In the 1966 gubernatorial race, Griffin supported Democratic nominee Lester Maddox, an Atlanta businessman known for his segregationist views. Maddox's opponent, Republican U.S. Representative Howard Callaway, had supported Griffin in the latter's 1962 campaign. As the publisher of the Post Searchlight in Bainbridge, Griffin at first indicated that he would repay Callaway for the earlier support, but he instead held firm for Maddox. "I consider Bo Callaway one of my best friends, but I can't go with him in the governor's race," Griffin said. Conversely, former Governor Ernest Vandiver, who as lieutenant governorfrom 1955 to 1959 had frequently quarreled with Governor Griffin, dismissed Maddox as "a pipsqueak" and endorsed Callaway.
In 1968, Griffin was a stand-in candidate for Vice President of the United States on George C. Wallace's American Independent Party ticket. Griffin was thereafter replaced in the second slot by United States Air Force General Curtis LeMay although Griffin's name stayed on the ballot in several states.
After the end of his gubernatorial tenure, Griffin returned to his hometown of Bainbridge and went into the real estate business. He helped to found Bainbridge College in 1970, where classes began in 1973. He was a leading advocate and member of the college's board of directors. He also oversaw and directed the Decatur County Sesquicentennial in 1973, at which former Georgia governor and future President Jimmy Carter was the honored guest. Griffin died in June 1982 due to complications from lung cancer.