Mayor of Columbia. Born in the Hell Hole Swamp area of Berkeley County on September 7, 1904, Bates was the son of Alfred G. Bates and Ella Cumbee. He began his elementary schooling with Mormon missionaries, but at age twelve he took a job as a water boy for a logging crew. That year he suffered a near-fatal accident when he fell beneath the wheel of a train. Taken to Charleston for surgery, he remained in treatment for a year. After a brief return to Berkeley County, he went back to Charleston and worked during the day while attending night school at the Salvation Army. During his lengthy recuperation, the young out-of-town patient came to the attention of the congregation of the First Baptist Church of Charleston. One of the church families took him into their home during his recuperation; their daughter, Julia Burk, later became his wife in 1927. The couple had two children.
At age nineteen, Bates became an agent with the Industrial Life and Health Insurance Company (later to become Life of Georgia). In 1931 he became a district manager with Atlantic Coast Life. He founded Capital Life and Health Insurance Company in 1936 and in 1955, the New South Life Insurance Company.
Bates was elected to Columbia City Council in 1944 and served there for eight years. In 1958 he was elected mayor of Columbia. He was reelected without opposition in 1962 and 1966. Columbia experienced a period of rapid growth during the Bates years. One of his first actions as mayor was the appointment of a study group to investigate the improvement of air service for the area. As a result, the Richland-Lexington Airport District began operating the Columbia Metropolitan Airport in 1962. The airport began operations in a newly built facility in 1965. In 1968 Bates enlisted the support of South Carolina’s congressional delegation in a successful drive to incorporate the U.S. Army’s Fort Jackson into the Columbia city limits, a move that increased the population of the city by twenty thousand people. Also in 1968 the City of Columbia, Richland County, and the University of South Carolina completed construction of the Carolina Coliseum.
For many, the richest legacy of the Bates years is his role in the civil rights movement of the early 1960s. As many cities across the region were facing violent reactions to desegregation, Bates was determined that Columbia would integrate peacefully. To that end, he assembled committees of black and white community leaders, with whom he first met separately, to discuss how best to avoid violence. The committees then merged and orchestrated the peaceful desegregation of Columbia’s lunch counters in 1962, two years before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This group became the forerunner of the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council.
Columbia was twice awarded the All-America City designation during Bates’s tenure as mayor. At the end of his third term in 1970, he was appointed to the South Carolina Insurance Commission and awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree by the University of South Carolina. Bates died in Columbia on February 24, 1988, and was buried in the Eccles United Methodist Churchyard in Moncks Corner. The Greater Columbia Community Relations Council, descended from his original desegregation committees, presented its first Distinguished Service Award to him posthumously in 1994.
Becker, Paul R. “Lester Bates Helped Bridge Gap for Area.” Columbia State, January 14, 2000, p. A12.
“City Grew under Bates.” Columbia Record, February 25, 1988, pp. A1, A13. “Kress Is a Civil Rights Landmark.” Columbia State, February 16, 2000, 3.
Moore, John Hammond. Columbia and Richland County: A South Carolina Community, 1740–1990. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.
Sponhour, Michael, and Dawn Hinshaw. “‘Secret’ Plan Helped Keep the Peace.” Columbia State, February 1, 1994, pp. A1, A6.