Lanier Phillips marched in Selma, Ala., alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963. He worked as a technical specialist on lighting projects with Jacques Cousteau.
But early in his life he saw perhaps the worst of humanity, growing up as a black child in Lithonic, Georgia. He shared those experiences and others — including a fateful meeting with the white people of St. Lawrence, New-foundland – with local students in a presentation focusing on racial inequality, on April 11 at Selbyville Middle School.
Phillips visited the school after students in Brett Buchler’s history class watched a documentary about his life and wrote Phillips letters, some of which asked him to make the visit.
“I think it’s great they got to meet the man,” Buchler said. “Even the black kids now don’t know what he had to go through. It’s amazing that somebody is still alive that can tell these kids this story.”
Phillips was born on March 14, 1923, and grew up in a two-room Georgia home with no running water and no electricity. He and his family frequently sought shelter under tables and beds when the KKK marched nearby streets, terrorizing the town’s large black community. Black men and women were lynched and whipped regularly by members of the white supremacist organization in the 1920s Deep South, Phillips said.
Even after the community in which Phillips lived built a school for the “colored” people in 1929, the KKK burned it to the ground. No other school for black children opened until 1939 — but by that time, Phillips had left Georgia.
After a short stint with an uncle in Chattanooga, Tenn., he decided to join the Navy, just before World War II.
“My purpose to join the Navy was to get away from the South,” Phillips told the students on Tuesday.
Upon joining the Navy, however, Phillips realized that there were limitations on blacks in the military. He could only serve as a mess attendant with the rest of the “coloreds,” making food, shining shoes and hand-washing the officers’ clothes on the USS Truxton.
It was that position that Phillips had come to accept. But on February 18, 1942, the Truxton got caught in a storm in a trip back from Iceland and the captain lost control. Sometime after 4 a.m. on that February morning, the ship wrecked off of the coast of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland.
As everyone struggled for their lives, Phillips fled into the icy waters with others and made it to the rocky shore, where he was rescued by a group of natives from St. Lawrence. Phillips was one of only 46 people to survive out of the 156 people who were on board the USS Truxton that night.
The white people from the town took him into their homes, cleaned the oil and tar from his body, nursed him back to health and changed his perspective on life, he said. Never had he been treated so kindly by white people.
“I was overwhelmed with their love,” Phillips said. “It was something new to me. That changed my whole philosophy on life.”
No longer was he content to be a mess attendant, he said. Upon returning to the United States, he again faced racism, in the form of segregation in Jacksonville, Fla. When he entered a restaurant for whites, to ask for directions, a military police officer grabbed him, threw him to the ground, pulled his pistol and said, “You know you don’t belong in here,” Phillips told the crowd on Tuesday.
But despite the still-apparent racism in the States, he said, he was determined to make something of himself. So he lobbied Congress and his higher-ups in the Navy to allow him to enroll in sonar school while on board a Navy ship.
And after about five months of waiting, the Navy allowed him to take the class. With the help of extensive studying, Phillips passed the class and went on to become one of the first sonar instructors, and the first sonar technician in the Navy.
After retiring from the service in 1961, Phillips worked as a technical specialist in oceanography for EG&G International. He worked on a project with Jacques Cousteau and helped find an atomic bomb lost in the Atlantic Ocean.
About the time Phillips retired from the Navy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had started to lead the civil rights movement in the United States. After Phillips’ first child faced racism upon entering school, he felt the need to join King on his quest in Selma, Ala., he said. Upon joining the movement, he saw that same love he’d found in St. Lawrence in King.
“He challenged the sheriffs of the South who had guns and vicious dogs,” Phillips told the students on Tuesday. “He challenged those people and he had a weapon. His weapon was the Constitution. And he defeated those people.”
Phillips told the crowd on Tuesday that his ambition to work as a technician and to march in the civil rights movement was born on that frightful night in St. Lawrence. He would never have achieved anything if it wasn’t for the white people who saved him that night, giving him a feeling of self-worth, he said.
“We’re all God’s children, despite the color of our skin,” Phillips said. “If someone tells you, ‘Don’t talk to that person because he’s Latino or black,’ think. Think of how great this country is.”
Phillips now lives in a naval retirement home in Washington, D.C., in better times than that in which he grew up, he said. In his presentation on Tuesday, however, he said there is still racial inequality in this country, specifically pointing out the immigration issue facing Congress.
In that presentation, though, he challenged the students to shed the idea of inequality and embrace every human being as an equal.
“It was really an eye-opener to see what these people had to go through,” said Lucie Rinker, a student in Buchler’s class.
“All the people in the civil rights movement, they wanted us to be able to be in the same classroom,” added Taylor Johnson, another student. “We now have that and it’s good to be a part of history he helped make.”
The more than 100 students in attendance seemed to grasp Phillips’ message.
“He’s a person who cares about everyone,” Joshua Mueller said.