Former Detroit Council Member And Civil Rights Activist Alonzo Bates, Who Was Convicted of Corruption, Dies at 84

January 31, 2024, 12:13 PM by  Allan Lengel

Alonzo Bates

Civil rights activist Alonzo "Lonnie" Bates, who served on the Detroit City Council and the Detroit Board of Education, and went to prison in 2007 for bank fraud and approving no-show payments to ghost employees, died Thursday (Jan. 25) at age 84.

"He loved the children of Detroit and worked hard to ensure the Detroit Public Schools was a place Detroiters would be proud of," said political commentator Adolph Mongo, co-host of the weekly podcast "Detroit in Black and White." "Unfortunately he had to deal with some other issues."

Bates worked for nearly three decades for the city's Recreation Department while also serving as a school board member for 20 years and Detroit City Council member from 2002 to 2004. He was indicted for corruption in 2005 and later convicted and sentenced in 2007 to 33 months in prison.

Born Oct. 7, 1939, he was one of five children born to Edward Winfield Bates and Annie Lee, who migrated north to Detroit from Alabama in the 1920s.They lived on Detroit's east side. He was a troublemaker as a kid, according to a 1977 Free Press article, and got kicked out of multiple schools. 

At Southeastern High School, he played football, basketball and baseball and ran track. He got an athletic scholarship to Ferris State University in Big Rapids. After a dispute over sports, he left and went to Alabama State University in 1960.

He attended Alabama State University and played on the baseball team. He also became involved in the civil rights movement in the South in the 1960s, and was hosed with water in Nashville, poked with a cattle prod in Selma, Ala. and sprayed with shotgun pellets during a voter registration drive, the Detroit Free Press reported in 1977.  While demonstrating in the south, he met Jim Holley, who later became the pastor of the Historic Little Rock Baptist Church on Woodward in Detroit. 

"Lonnie and I have marched together," Rev. Holley wrote in a letter to Bates' sentencing Judge Victoria Roberts in 2006. "We have both gone to church and jail together for participating in demonstrations to establish the rights of poor and African American citizens."

After earning an education degree in Alabama, Bates returned to Detroit and took classes at Wayne State University. He went on to work at Chrylser as a security guard and later as a labor relations counselor there. He then went on to become a counselor for ex-offenders for the Michigan Department of Corrections. 

He was elected to the Detroit School board in 1970 and went on to serve for about 20 years. In 1973, he successfully pushed for school contractors to employe a Black workforce of at least 20 percent.

Bates was greatly admired by the Black residents, according to the 1977 Freep article, and he advocated for teachers to move back in the city and for better ways to size up classroom performance and a quicker way to fire bad teachers. He also successfully pushed for a gifted school, which was named after him.

But he faced criticism in the community and the press for flying first class as a school board member, including for an education conference in Hamburg, Germany. He also was known to drive around the city in a chauffer-driven car. 

When asked about his first-class flying, the Freep quoted him as saying: "I didn't create first-class travel, the white people created first-class travel." When asked about spending taxpayers' money on expensive trips and meals, he said: "I have an interest in higher learning to deal with racists like you and the Free Press. You don't want to educate my children."

He was featured in the 1977 Freep article titled: "Who is Alonzo Bates and why do people (mostly white) get so mad at him?" The subhead of the article said: "The outspoken school board member has made his share of enemies. But he can do no wrong for his mostly black constituents in Region 8."

The article went on to describe him as: "Outspoken. Outraged. Outrageous. At times Alonzo Winfield Bates seems to be the Adam Clayton Powell of Detroit schools, but it is a resemblance that is mostly superficial. Bates doesn't drink, smoke or party, doesn't go in for flashy clothes or fancy cars, and lives in a tumbledown neighborhood. He is, however, a powerful man, with a seat on the central board of education and the chairman of Region 8."

In 1977, he lived alone in an upstairs flat with window bars. He earned about $25,000 a year as deputy personnel director of the city Recreation Department and $1,270 from the school board job.

He was elected to the Detroit City Council in 2001 and served until 2004. In November 2005, a grand jury issued a 13-count indictment alleging he stole nearly $92,000 by padding his office payroll with four "ghost" employees, including his son's mother, his girlfriend's daughter and a gardener.  He was convicted and sentenced in 2007 to 33 months in prison and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine and make restitution of $91,168.74 to the city of Detroit.

He was released from prison in March 2010 at age 69. He remained in Detroit until his final days, dealing with medical issues.

He is survived by his wife Yolanda, daughters Kayana Bates, Aisha Griffin (Kendall), son Edward Bates and three granddaughters Addison, Zoe Griffin and Payton Bates.

Visitation is set for Monday, Feb. 5, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, 18700 James Couzens Hwy, Detroit. Family hour will be held at the church Tuesday, Feb. 6, from 10-11 a.m. The funeral will be held at 11 a.m. at the church. It will also livestreamed.

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