Lanier W. Phillips, a prominent civil rights activist who was so deathly afraid of white people that he wouldn’t look them in the eye until he was saved by a group of them in 1942, died Sunday at age 88 in a retirement home in Gulfport, Mississippi.
The great grandson of a Georgia slave, Phillips story is a fascinating one. He was raised in the segregated south in the 1920′s and 30′s, where the lynching of Black men was a sport, but then again, they also resorted to burning them alive, beating them to death or just riddling them with bullets. The white supremacists gang, the Ku Klux Klan, reigned supreme and used terrorist tactics to suppress Black people. Blacks were disdainfully referred to as ‘n***ers,’ had limited rights and were segregated from Whites. Blacks were separated from Whites at schools, in public places and on public transportation. Blacks were denied access to parks, beaches, picnic areas, and from many hospitals. Politically, Blacks were powerless. Segregation was supported by law enforcement and the legal system.
Blacks were less than second class citizens at the time that Phillips was growing up. He belonged to a race of people who faced discrimination in housing, jobs, and who were even given curfews in some areas. Phillips was raised to never look a White person in the face. He was deathly afraid of them because he had witnessed their wrath against his people. Since he had struggled with so much oppression in his life, his heart was filled with hate for those who were his oppressors.
In an effort to flee the confinements of his surroundings, Phillips made the decision to join the U.S. Navy in 1941 at the age of 18. Even though the Navy was still segregated, he weighed his options and went with the naval branch where blacks were relegated to mess attendants.
On February 18, 1942, Phillips was aboard the U.S.S. Truxtun and a fierce storm caused it and a supply ship the U.S.S. Pullox to get shipwrecked off the southeast coast of the Canadian province Newfoundland in a tiny town called St. Lawrence. A total of 100 men died in the devastation but Phillips was amongst the 46 sailors who survived.
Phillips’ body was washed ashore and was covered head to toe in black oil. When he opened his eyes he saw a group of White people, who had assembled to help the survivors. A White man with an accent spoke to him in a kind way and tried to help him by walking him over to a fire for warmth. Phillips was taken aback that a White person had spoken to him so politely and offered to help him. “I had never heard a kind word from a White man in my life, and I had hatred for White men,” he told the Washington Post two years ago.
A miner’s wife, Violet Pike, then offered to wipe his face to remove the thick oil that covered it. Phillips was petrified that the woman, upon wiping his face, would see that he was in fact a Black men and the kindness would end abruptly. Instead, Pike took Phillips to her home to care for him. She even spoon fed him broth until he had recovered full circle.
The sailor’s perception of White people changed after his experience in Newfoundland. He came to the realization that not all White people had hate in their hearts for him. He was profoundly touched by the kindness of the White people in the town and never forgot their kindness over the years. These caring White people had managed to melt away the hatred and fears he long harbored in his heart for them.
The life-changing event altered Phillips perception of Blacks, Whites and equality. It fueled him to want to bring about change for his people, so he began his crusade to fight against oppression. As a prominent civil rights figure, Phillips found himself marching side-by-side with the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
He also broke ground by becoming the Navy’s first Black sonar technician. Phillips throughout the years wanted to repay the towns people’s kindness toward him, so he managed to donate enough monies so that a playground could be built in the town of 1,000 residents.
Phillips was also an eloquent lecturer who traveled the country giving speeches about his life and of the turning point. In 2008, he was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Newfoundland for his lifelong dedication to civil rights. On February 18 of this year, Phillips traveled back to St. Lawrence to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the disaster.