Who was recently honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom?
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is considered one of the highest awards given to civilians in the United States — the other being the Congressional Gold Medal. The Presidential Medal of Freedom itself is a decoration handed out by the President of the United States. The medal is meant as a major recognition on the part of the President to recognize citizens who have “made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” The award is not limited to United States citizens.
This past Wednesday August 12, 2009, the East Room of the White House was the site for the presentation of 14 Presidential medals — a number greater than the number of living award recipients. President Obama was making a big point by handing out awards to people he called “Agents of Change” — a long list including sports figures, scientists, and grassroots organizers. The people given awards this year are all top of the line members of their field, be it the arts, sports, science, or humanities.
Said President Obama in his kickoff to the ceremony — “The true test of a person’s life is what we do for one another.” This was President Obama’s first official awards ceremony.
All but one of the 14 living honorees were in attendance, meaning this event was packed with big names from around the world. Some of the past award winners are actor Sidney Poitier, , former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and performer Chita Rivera. Senator Edward Kennedy was the only one absent — he has a good excuse. The Senator is battling brain cancer and just lost his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver the day before the ceremony. His daughter, Kara Kennedy, was at the ceremony to accept the award from President Obama on his behalf.
Obama pointed out time and again that this year’s recipients were chosen because they are “agents of change” — a term that Obama uses to mean that their various deeds and accomplishments helped the world become a better place. A lofty description, but a worthy one.
The other recipients were famous British physicist Stephen Hawking, Nancy Goodman Brinker (who founded the breast cancer grass roots organization Susan G. Komen for the Cure), Muhammad Yunus, an activist who founded the Grameen Bank to provide microloans to the poor in his native country of Bangladesh, Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, who was an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, Pedro José Greer Jr., a Miami doctor who spends his time with the poor and homeless citizens in Miami, former tennis pro Billie Jean King (the first openly gay athlete after her very public coming out in 1981), the first female President of Ireland Mary Robinson, the Reverend Joseph Lowery, who was a major figure in the civil rights movement in the 1950s, and human gene specialist Janet Davison Rowley, the first scientist to discover the cause of Leukemia and many other cancers.
President Obama went on to say that “These extraordinary men and women remind us that excellence is not beyond our abilities … we each have it in our power to fulfill dreams.”
Here are some further quotes by Obama about some specific honorees —
Of Sydney Poitier, who became the first black man to win an Academy Award for best actor in 1963, Obama said he “not only entertained but enlightened … using the power of the silver screen to bring us closer together.”
One of the honorees, a Plains Indian known as Joe Medicine Crow, became the only award recipient of the night to make a public statement. Joe Medicine Crow, in full native feathered headdress and regalia, waited until the Medal was presented to him to shout “I am highly honored!” Joe Medicine Crow is the last living war chief of the Plains Indians. Rather than engaging in battle, his way is to maintain the history and culture of Native America.
Speaking of Dolores Rivera, Obama made a point of introducing the Puerto Rican woman by her given name — Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero — so he could drive home a point. Obama mentioned that the Tony award winning performer “knows adversity comes with a difficult name.” Cue the laugh track — if anyone has had “name trouble” this past year it has been Barack Hussein Obama.
Two posthumous honors were handed out — one for Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in America who was famously shot and killed in 1978, and the late U.S. congressman Jack Kemp.