On of the evening's honorees, attorney Rickey Wilkins (left) greets former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater, the keynote speaker. (Photo courtesy of Patricia Rogers)

Diversity of contributions in the legal community was the cause for celebration as hundreds filled the scenic ballroom of the Guest House at Graceland for the second Unity in Diversity Scholarship Banquet event.

Featured speaker was the former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater, the first African-American director of the Federal Highway Administration in 1993.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris (right) and Rodney Slater. (Photo: Patricia Rogers)

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris was on hand to welcome attendees to the event (Feb. 7).

“Shelby County is a large, urban, diverse county with more than 950,000. Our diversities are our strength,” Harris said.

“Shelby County is the proverbial melting pot. That is why events such as this are so welcome here.”

Slater was appointed Federal Highway Administration director by President Bill Clinton. Prior to his national appointment, he served as assistant attorney general for the State of Arkansas, as an assistant to Gov. Clinton, and as a member of the Arkansas State Highway Commission.

Slater also served as a special liaison to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission.

“I learned a couple of things about Dr. King that I found surprising,” Slater said. “King just wanted to be a good minister. While we recognize the great work he did in helping to make this a more perfect union, he just wanted to work on behalf of those who were not included. But to be a good minister is really all he ever wanted.

“At age 26, he just happened to be in a place where he was chosen to lead,” Slater said. “A woman just decided one day that she was going to sit and wait for a change to come. Dr. King decided to use his Ph.D. to work for civil rights and social justice. Today, we understand the value of this great work. We, too, are charged with continuing this important work.”

Thousands of dollars in scholarships were awarded to University of Memphis law student Waleed Naser, who is in his third year, and senior high school standout, Jasmin Magana, at Freedom Prep Academy.

Attorney Ricky E. Wilkins received the coveted Champion of Diversity Award.

“I want to thank the law firm of Burch Porter Johnson for giving me an opportunity to reach out to all people,” he said in a brief acceptance speech. I learned to stand up and fight, to stand up and confront those who try to prevent us from being to each other what we ought to be.

“Many said, ‘Come to Atlanta, come to Chicago, come to DC. Your growth won’t be what it could be if you stay in Memphis. But my heart was in Memphis. And so I encourage you young lawyers, make Memphis your legal home. We need your talent. Our community is crying out for your talent.)

Wilkins worked for the law firm 13 years before starting his own firm in 2003. He most recently founded MemPower, an economic and political empowerment initiative that advocates fairness and inclusion in both public and private affairs.

Also awarded were:  Large Firm: Butler Snow; Small Firm: Spence Law Firm; Corporate: International Paper;  Professional Individual: Professor Demetria Frank, Memphis Law; and Non-Profit Organization: JustCity.