03/18/2012 11:52 EDT | Updated 05/18/2012 05:12 EDT

Lanier Phillips, civil rights pioneer, laid to rest

Lanier Phillips, the African-American civil rights trailblazer whose lifelong bond with Newfoundland was as strong as the rescuers who pulled him up a cliff to safety seven decades ago, has been laid to rest in Lithonia, Ga.

Phillips died Monday. He was 88.

"My father's faith was instilled in him as a child a short distance from here and at this very church," Lanier's son, Terry Phillips, said in eulogizing his father.

Lanier Phillips was an 18-year-old mess attendant on the USS Truxtun when it and another ship, the USS Pollux, ran aground in southern Newfoundland in February 1942 after a navigational error.

The disaster saw 203 sailors lose their lives. Another 186 — including Phillips — survived. Residents of the small Newfoundland towns of Lawn and St. Lawrence pulled them up sheer cliffs to safety.

Phillips marvelled at how he was treated by his rescuers — exactly the same as the white survivors.

"They changed my way of thinking and it erased all of the hatred within me," Phillips told CBC News in February.

The mayor of St. Lawrence, Wayde Rowsell, was at the Union Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia to speak at the funeral Saturday.

"Lanier never forgot his unconditional welcome, love and acceptance in St. Lawrence some 70 years ago," Rowsell said.

"His pursuit for a just and equal society has been a lasting effort."

Life-altering experience

Phillips said his experience in St. Lawrence was life-altering. He went on to become the first African-American sonar technician in the U.S. Navy, and became active in the civil rights movement — inspired by Martin Luther King and his personal experiences in Newfoundland.

"Because of that tragedy, I joined up with Dr. King,” Phillips said in a recent interview before his death. “I just had to join up with Dr. King and that's because of the change they did for me in St. Lawrence.”

Phillips was there for the seminal events of the U.S. civil rights movement in 1965, including the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

U.S. Navy 'grateful'

Paulette Brock is command master chief of the Truxtun today. Brock, an African-American, is following the trail Phillips helped clear.

"We met last month when we celebrated the 70th anniversary of his ship the Truxtun," Brock said. "And he told his stories. He told his stories about struggles ... he told his stories about obstacles. But in those stories you heard his determination."

Brock added: "I am grateful. The crew of the USS Truxtun is grateful. The United States Navy is grateful for Dr. Lanier Phillips."

'I'll tell it again and again'

Nearly a quarter-century ago, Phillips began telling the story of how his treatment by strangers in a faraway place changed his life.

In 2006, Phillips said in an interview that he would never tire of doing so.

"I'll tell it again and again," he said then. "I'll tell it until the day I die, because I think it should be told. To me, it's a lesson in humanity and love for mankind, and I hope the whole world hears about it. I just wish other people would experience the same love."

Phillips was back in St. Lawrence just last month, for the 70th anniversary of the Truxtun and Pollux disaster — and to tell his story one last time.