Government & Politics

Michael D. Bates, KC human rights stalwart, dies at 70

In 2013, Michael Bates is was named director for Olathe's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. Bates died June 29 at the age of 70.
In 2013, Michael Bates is was named director for Olathe's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. Bates died June 29 at the age of 70.

Former Kansas City Human Relations director Michael D. Bates, a central figure in the fight to add protection for gay and lesbian people to the city's civil rights ordinances, died June 29. He was 70.

Bates spent 22 years working for the city beginning in 1981, first as assistant human relations director under Alvin Brooks, then as director from 1991 to 2003. A civil rights attorney by training, he helped to write the city's anti-discrimination and affirmative action ordinances and developed the Minority and Women Business Enterprise program, designed to broaden contracting opportunities for disadvantaged firms.

His most enduring contribution was his role in the passage of the 1993 ordinance that gave gay and lesbian people legal protections against discrimination in employment or housing. The council action, on an 8-0 vote with five abstentions, capped a turbulent period at City Hall, where gay activists and fundamentalist Christian groups staged rallies and protests. The measure, which first failed in 1990, was also opposed by the city's black ministers.

Bates was regarded as a moderating influence amid the contention.

"He was the good cop," Brooks said Tuesday. "He was more mild-mannered than I was."

"It's not a stretch to say he was probably one of the most, if not the most, influential people responsible for getting the ordinance introduced," said filmmaker Austin Williams, who featured Bates in "The Ordinance Project," a new documentary about the fight.

"Whether it was the AIDS Council or ACT UP, Michael Bates seemed to be the middle man everybody was talking to," Williams said.

City Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, who voted for the 1993 measure, said Bates' skill kept the legislation alive through hours of hearings and challenges from outside groups.

"Michael was just an incredible human being," Shields said Tuesday. "He had such a sympathy for all people. He was very perceptive about the challenges different groups of people faced."

Bates was born in Belleville, Ill., and attended Illinois State University, where he looked into off-campus housing available to black students and prodded school administrators for improvements. He graduated in 1970 with a degree in sociology and worked as a VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) volunteer in southeast Missouri.

After receiving a law degree from St. Louis University School of Law, he served as legal counsel and chief hearing officer of investigations for the Missouri Human Rights Commission.

Following his retirement from City Hall, Bates was human relations director for the city of Olathe, a minority contracting coordinator for the Kansas City School District and UMKC's affirmative action director.

Through it all, he remained a fierce advocate for minority voices. In a 2009 letter to The Star supporting Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, Bates noted the country's progress on racial matters, but lamented a persistent strain of denial of its racist past:

"We suffer from a collective amnesia as best described by Plato's 'Allegory of the Cave' in 'The Republic,'" he wrote. "Briefly we are chained to the wall and we think the shadows are reality. When we are unchained and face the light of reality, it is too painful. If we would just take time for our eyes to adjust, we would see the truth, not just the shadows of truth."

Bates is survived by his wife, Ruth Bates, two sons, Sean and Nicholas, a daughter, Jessica, a sister, Marsha, and two grandchildren, Solomon and Eli.

A memorial brunch to celebrate his life will be Saturday, July 7 from noon to 3 p.m. at Grand Street Café, 4740 Grand Ave.