Phillips Shares Personal Challenges Of Racism

80-year old Lanier Phillips was born and raised in Georgia where segregation and the KKK ruled. He says with no future, he joined the Navy in 1941. Phillips survived the sinking of the USS Truxton off the coast of Newfoundland. People from a nearby town rescued the sailors as they struggled to swim through the frozen, oil slicked waters.

"When I gained consciousness a second time I was stark naked and I looked at my body and about four white ladies was massagin' my body to get the circulation goin' in my body. I submit to you and I tell you I was more afraid at that moment than I was when I jumped in the icy cold waters of James Cove."

Phillps became the Navy's first black sonar technician. Before retiring in 1961, he met Dr. Martin Luther King in Boston. He says King's passion during his 1963 march to Selma drew him into the fight for equality.

"I said to my wife and my children I must go to Selma. I had to go I had no choice and my wife said to me they will kill you," he said.

Phillips did go to Selma, and on to Montgomery, sharing Dr. King's words with others along the way.

"If a man has never discovered something he will die for, he isn't fit to live and that's the way I felt, that I would die for the rights of men," he said.

Phillips thought his Navy service earned him the right to live at Gulfport's Naval Home. But in 1985, Phillips says he had to threaten legal action to get in Even today, he says he can't escape people who see only the color of his skin.

"A resident walks up to me one day, touched me on the shoulder. I looked at him and said hi and he said 'I want you to know I'm a racist and ya got no business here. This place is for white folks and we don't want niggers here.'"

Phillips says racism has followed him through every chapter of his life. He says his heartfelt wish is for all of America to cross color barriers, and live Dr. King's dream of racial harmony. Lanier Phillips calls Mississippi the most racist state in the nation for continuing to fly the flag that includes the Confederate battle emblem. And he doesn't have kind words for Senator Trent Lott praising former segregationist Strom Thurmond at his hundredth birthday party.