Driving while black federal judge speaks at Muncie IN Black Expo

Robert L. Wilkins offers hope, opportunity for young black males

By Rick Yencer

MUNCIE, INDIANA  (NEWS) - Federal judge and Muncie native Robert L. Wilkins recalled the day his family returned home after a family funeral when they were stopped by a Maryland State Police officer.

The officer insisted on searching car after Wilkins informed him that he was a Washington D.C. attorney.

Wilkins said the officer insisted and brought a drug sniffing dog to the scene that found nothing while his family waited outside in the rain.

The incident caused Wilkins to file suit against the state alleging racial profiling and without probable cause. Wilkins won a landmark decision that required Maryland and later other police departments to record traffic stops and state reasons for searches.

That settlement nearly 20 years ago highlighted problems with racial profiling and made popular the saying "driving while black."

Wilkins downplayed that incident during to talk at Muncie Black Expo lunch on Thursday before about 400 people.

Rather, he spoke about  equal justice for all and hope and opportunity for young black males, showing how a skinny kid from Muncie could get an education, graduate from Harvard Law School and be appointed by President Barack Obama as a U.S. Court of Appeals judge in the District of Columbia, Washington D.C.

"We always want to be reminded of the greatest in Muncie IN,' said Terry Whitt Bailey, director of Muncie Community Development and mistress of ceremony at the Black Expo event.

Wilkins, the son of longtime Muncie Housing Authority finance director Joyce Wilkins, was the keynote speaker at the corporate lunch with leaders of business, government and community attending.

Mayor Dennis Tyler also recognized the federal judge for his accomplishments and his work to create a national museum of African-American culture and history.

For Wilkins, he and his brother were raised by a single mother, went to school initially at Garfield, moved around the Midwest and returned to graduate at Northside High School.

He worked in a local fast food restaurant and was encouraged to go to college, initially at Rose Hulman where he graduated with an engineering degree.

After wanting to do something else, Wilkins thought about law school and applied to Harvard where he was accepted and graduated with a law degree. He worked at DeFur Voran during and after law school, went to the California and then to Washington D.C. 

He recalled spending a summer in South Africa teaching young black lawyers while Apartheid was still the law and Nelson Mandela remained in prison. That set him on a course of seeking justice for all and later found a way to obtain landmark case law to stop the profiling of black males by police.

Wilkins also was a federal public defender and named to a federal bench in 2010 by Obama. A year later, Wilkins was a candidate for an appeals court position and  took that bench in 2011 after conformation by Congress.

Throughout his life, Wilkins talked about the strong work ethic instilled by his mother, never turning down an opportunity and always seeking equality for all.

He hoped his life would be a lesson for other black males that can succeed if they just work and take opportunity for a career.

Black Expo besides local government recognized Wilkins' achievement and handed out awards to others in the community.

The summer celebration for Black Expo is June 7 with a parade starting in downtown Muncie at the Fieldhouse at 11 a.m. that day.





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