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New London civil rights champion dies of COVID-19

Waldren T. “Pokey” Phillips, a past president of the NAACP branch in New London known for being a champion of civil rights and a longtime judicial marshal, died Jan. 23 at Yale New Haven Hospital from complications due to COVID-19. He was 64.

Phillips' daughter Rasheedah said she's been inundated with texts and calls since her father's death from people wanting to share their stories about him, including one she hadn't heard before about him meeting with the late civil rights icon Congressman John Conyers Jr.

In 2012, Pokey and other members of the New London NAACP branch had managed to get a last-minute meeting with Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan who was then the chair of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, to discuss widespread police misconduct and the failure of local, state and federal officials to hold police officers accountable.

With the news of Phillip's passing, Tamara Lanier, vice president of the New London NAACP, also was thinking about that spur-of-the-moment trip to Washington. 

"I wasn't sure if we were going to make it. Pokey said, 'We're going. Get your stuff together. Hop in the car. We'll drive down tonight and be there in the morning.' He was that take-charge kind of guy," Lanier said. "He just made things happen."

Rasheedah Phillips said she's heard that a lot in the days since her father's death, that he was a man who took charge, and when he said he was going to do something, he put his whole heart into it.

"If he said yes, he was going to do it, he gave it his all," she said. "That is one thing I'll try to live up to."

A native of Philadelphia, Phillips moved to New London at age 18 after being recruited to work at Electric Boat, where he was employed for 25 years, leaving as supervisor of the paint department.

He dedicated much of his life in New London to the NAACP, an organization he became involved with during his childhood in Philadelphia through his mother and grandmother. He joined the New London branch in the early 2000s, working his way through the ranks and serving as its president for two terms from 2005 to 2008.

“He became known as a local freedom fighter for his peers and the Black community," his obituary says.

The local NAACP has issued a resolution in honor of Phillips, a copy of which will be given to his family and another copy will be placed in the branch’s archives. The resolution calls Phillips “an unapologetic fighter for truth, transparency and justice.”

“Brother Pokey loved the City of New London and faithfully served its residents. He put the last first, gave voice to the voiceless and welcomed those left out,” it says.

Phillips received a lifetime achievement award from the New London NAACP in 2017, but was unable to accept the award in person as he was at Yale-New Haven Hospital awaiting a heart donor at the time. His family accepted the award on his behalf.

A father of five, Phillips loved spending time with his family, particularly his six grandchildren.

"He used to say the best sound in the world was to hear his grandkids laugh," Rasheedah Phillips said.

Pokey stayed active his whole life — riding his bike to work daily — including after his heart transplant in 2017, Rasheedah said. Her father kept a couple of weights in his hospital room while awaiting his heart transplant, and afterward, he bought himself a bike and started riding again regularly and going on daily walks, she said. "He couldn’t stay put."

Phillips was in end-stage heart disease when he received a transplant at Yale on Dec. 5, 2017. In an interview with The Day several months afterward, he expressed gratitude for the man from Vermont, whom he knew little about but whose death gave him a second chance at life.

"I have to thank God that person was able to help me survive," he had said. "That's something I'll never forget. That person is in me and always there for me."

Lanier said Phillips "cheated death" many times throughout his life "and bounced back stronger every time."

He was a member of Walls Clarke Temple A.M.E. Zion Church for many years, serving on the church's board of trustees, and of the Black Elks Lodge of New London County.

He was also a decorated law enforcement officer. He became a deputy sheriff in 1994 and stayed on as a judicial marshal when the sheriff system was abolished in 2000.

Ron Johnson, Phillips' longtime partner marshal, said Phillips was a guy with “a big heart” who “cared about a lot of people.” He joked that there were days when he and Phillips would fight like an old married couple, but they also had a bond and trust with one another that meant they never had to second-guess each other.

Johnson said Phillips’ work with the NAACP, which he would talk about often, opened his eyes to various issues going on in the area at the time.

“He cared about everybody,” Johnson said.

Perhaps the most memorable moment in Phillips' career as a marshal came in 2009, when a prisoner at the Broad Street courthouse pulled a 9mm gun out of a shoe and aimed it at Phillips' head.

He and other marshals, including Johnson, wrestled the gun away from the man, preventing what could have been a deadly situation. For his actions, Phillips was awarded a Silver Star of Bravery by the American Police Hall of Fame and Museum in Miami, Fla.

Rasheedah Phillips said she was fortunate to spend Christmas with her father last year, when the family enjoyed a prime rib dinner and dressed up in matching pajamas.

"I remember him saying this is why he lived. This right here, his family," she said. "I can still see him smiling looking across the table. It’s a memory I’ll cherish forever."

j.bergman@theday.com

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