Photos: Medal of Freedom recipients honored

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  1. Stephen Hawking

    Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking floats on a zero-gravity jet on April 26, 2007. The craft carried Hawking 24,000 feet over Florida's Atlantic coast. The plane made a total of eight parabolic dips, including two during which Hawking made two weightless flips like "a gold-medal gymnast." Hawking, a Cambridge University physicist and mathematician, is known for his work on black holes. (Zero Gravity Corp / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Edward Kennedy

    Sen. Edward Kennedy listens carefully during the closing session of the White House's forum on health care reform on March 5 in Washington. Kennedy's daughter Kara will accept the award on his behalf. The senator, who is battling brain cancer, has chosen to remain in Massachusetts following the death of his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Harvey Milk

    Harvey Milk, left, and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone are shown during the signing of the city's gay rights bill in 1977. Milk, the late San Franciso supervisor and gay rights activist, was assassinated along with Moscone two years later. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Sandra Day O'Connor

    Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is shown in this 2005 file photo. Since retiring from the high court in 2006 to care for her ailing husband, the 79-year-old has been filling in as a substitute judge at federal appellate courts across the country. (Susan Walsh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Desmond Tutu

    Retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, casts his vote in Milnerton in Cape Town on April 22. Tutu gained admiration in during the 1980s as an opponent of apartheid. His other causes include the fight against AIDS and poverty. (Mark Wessels / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Billie Jean King

    In this Nov. 13, 2008, file photo, Billie Jean King poses after arriving at a Broadway musical in New York. The famed tennis player remains the only woman to have won U.S. singles titles on all four playing surfaces. She is also a champion for gender equality in sports. (Stuart Ramson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Sidney Poitier

    Actor Sidney Poitier speaks during a tribute honoring Berry Gordy on June 7, 2008. Poitier was the first African-American to win an Oscar for best actor and starred in the first mainstream movie to depict interracial romantic relationships. (Gus Ruelas / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Muhammad Yunus

    Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus greets borrowers at a Granmeen America open house at St. John's University in New York on April 18. Yunus is the pioneer of microloans and founder of the nonprofit microfinance organization Grameen, which makes small, low-interest loans to the poor without collateral. He began the program in his native Bangladesh. Grameen microloans have helped 154 million people around the world. (Eric Thayer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Joe Medicine Crow

    WWII veteran and Bronze Star recipient Joe Medicine Crow talking to Barack Obama on Aug. 27, 2008. Crow become an acclaimed Native American historian and is the last living war chief of the American Indians of the Great Plains. As a soldier in WWII, Crow is credited with stealing 50 Nazi SS horses from a German camp. (James Woodcock / Billings Gazette) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Joseph Lowery

    Civil Rights pioneer Joseph Lowery speaks at the National Press Club in Washington in this July 2, 2008 photo. Lowery co-founded with Martin Luther King Jr. the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He also gave the benediction at President Obama's inauguration in January. (Susan Walsh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Mary Robinson

    Former Ireland President Mary Robinson moderates a panel discussion on population growth and urbanization at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York on Sept. 25, 2008. Robinson was the first female president of Ireland, a former U.N. high commisioner for human rights. and founder of Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative. Some critics are raising questions about honoring her because she presided over the 2001 international conference on racism that was marked by anti-Israeli rhetoric. (Jason Decrow / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Nancy Brinker

    Nancy Brinker is interviewed by the press at the State Department in Washington on April 14, 2008. Brinker is the founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a U.S. organization that raises money for breast cancer research. (Lawrence Jackson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Jack Kemp

    Jack Kemp speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., on Aug. 25, 2006. Kemp, the ex-quarterback, congressman, one-time vice-presidential nominee and self-described "bleeding-heart conservative" will be honored posthumously with the Medal of Freedom. (Rogelio V. Solis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Chita Rivera

    Actress Chita Rivera arrives at a tribute to the creators of "West Side Story" in New York in this Sept. 26, 2007 photo. A prominent Hispanic singer and actress, Rivera is best known for playing Anita in the Broadway production of "West Side Story." She had been nominated nine times for a Tony award and won twice. (Peter Kramer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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updated 8/12/2009 6:01:11 PM ET 2009-08-12T22:01:11

President Barack Obama awarded the nation's highest civilian honor to 16 "agents of change" on Wednesday, highlighting their accomplishments as examples of the heights a person can reach and the difference they can make in the lives of others.

"What unites them is a belief ... that our lives are what we make of them, that no barriers of race, gender or physical infirmity can restrain the human spirit, and that the truest test of a person's life is what we do for one another," Obama said at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, overflowing with guests as well as White House aides who came to glimpse the celebrities in their midst.

"The recipients of the Medal of Freedom did not set out to win this or any other award. They did not set out in pursuit of glory or fame or riches," the president continued. "Rather they set out, guided by passion, committed to hard work, aided by persistence, often with few advantages but the gifts, grace and good name God gave them."

Film star Sidney Poitier, civil rights icon the Rev. Joseph Lowery and tennis legend Billie Jean King joined former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa in receiving the honor, the first such medals awarded by Obama.

Another medal recipient, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., was at home battling brain cancer and mourning the death Tuesday of his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and did not attend the ceremony. His daughter, Kara, accepted the award for him.

Obama gave posthumous honors to former Republican Rep. Jack Kemp of New York, the quarterback-turned-politician who died in May, and gay rights activist Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978.

The other recipients were:

  • Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a leading breast cancer grass-roots organization.
  • Dr. Pedro Jose Greer Jr., assistant dean of academic affairs at Florida International University School of Medicine and founder of the Camillus Health Concern, which treats thousands of homeless patients annually.
  • Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge University physicist and mathematician known for his work on black holes and his best-selling 1988 book "A Brief History of Time." He has been almost completely paralyzed for years and communicates through an electronic voice synthesizer.
  • Joe Medicine Crow, the last living Plains Indian war chief, who fought in World War II wearing war paint beneath his uniform. Obama met Medicine Crow during a presidential campaign stop last year, and was adopted as an honorary member of the Crow tribe.
  • Chita Rivera, actor, singer, dancer and winner of two Tony awards.
  • Mary Robinson, Ireland's first female president and one-time U.N. high commissioner for human rights. The decision to honor Robinson upset some Jewish groups and other friends of Israel who say she is biased against the Jewish state. Critics cite her role in the controversial Durban, South Africa, global racism conference in 2001, which the U.S. and Israel walked out of after participants criticized Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. The White House defended its decision to honor Robinson, saying she was being recognized for her work as a global advocate for women's and human rights.
  • Dr. Janet Davison Rowley, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago.
  • Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his global, pioneering work extending "micro loans" to poor people who don't have collateral.
Video: Obama awards Medal of Freedom

The honorees were called up one at a time, as a military aide read aloud a White House statement of their accomplishments. Another military aide handed Obama the medals, which hung from blue ribbons. The president then clasped them around the recipients' necks and congratulated them.

There was no time allotted for the award recipients to speak, but that didn't stop Medicine Crow. It took a few seconds for him to come forward when his name was called. But passing the microphone on his way back to his seat, he declared: "I'm highly honored."

Lowery wiped away tears after he sat back down. Poitier, almost as if in character, stood ramrod tall and stared straight ahead when it was his turn, even as a smiling Obama approached him. King lifted the medal to her lips and kissed it.

"These extraordinary men and women, these agents of change, remind us that excellence is not beyond our abilities, that hope lies around the corner, and that justice can still be won in the forgotten corners of this world," Obama said. "They remind us that we each have it within our powers to fulfill dreams, to advance the dreams of others and to remake the world for our children."

President Harry S. Truman established the Medal of Freedom in 1945 to recognize civilians for their efforts during World War II. President John F. Kennedy reinstated the medal in 1963 to honor distinguished service.

 

The White House released these statements about the winners:

  • Drawing strength from tragedy, Nancy Goodman Brinker has transformed the nation's approach to breast cancer. When her sister was diagnosed in 1977, most breast cancer victims knew relatively little about the disease and suffered from popular stigmas. Nancy G. Brinker promised to challenge these norms. She founded Susan G. Komen for the Cure in honor of her sister, and today, the organization supports research and community awareness programs across the United States and around the world. Nancy G. Brinker's unique passion and determination have been a blessing to all those whose lives have been touched by breast cancer.
  • Dr. Pedro Jose "Joe" Greer Jr. has devoted his career to improving medical services for the uninsured. A native of Miami, he followed his passion for helping others to medical school and founded the Camillus Health Concern (CHC) in 1984 as a medical intern. Today, CHC treats thousands of homeless patients a year, serving as a model clinic for the poor and inspiring physicians everywhere to work with indigent populations. Dr. Greer's tremendous contributions to the South Florida community and our nation as a whole stand as a shining example of the difference one person can make in the lives of many.
  • Persistent in his pursuit of knowledge, Stephen Hawking has unlocked new pathways of discovery and inspired people around the world. He has dedicated his life to exploring the fundamental laws that govern the universe, and he has contributed to some of the greatest scientific discoveries of our time. His work has stirred the imagination of experts and lay persons alike. Living with a disability and possessing an uncommon ease of spirit, Stephen Hawking's attitude and achievements inspire hope, intellectual curiosity and respect for the tremendous power of science.
  • A statesman and a sports icon, Jack French Kemp advocated for his beliefs with an unwavering integrity and intellectual honesty. On the football field, he earned the respect and admiration of his teammates for his judgment and leadership. As a public servant, he placed country before party, and ideas before ideology. Jack Kemp saw bridges where others saw divisions, and his legacy serves as a shining example for all who strive to challenge conventional wisdom, stay true to themselves and better our nation.
  • For more than four decades, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy has boldly fought for equal opportunity, fairness and justice for all Americans. In his tireless quest for a more perfect union, Sen. Kennedy has reformed our schools, strengthened our civil rights, helped seniors and working families, lifted up the poor, and worked to ensure that every American has access to quality and affordable health care. With volumes of laws bearing his name and countless lives touched by his extraordinary passion, Sen. Kennedy has accumulated several lifetimes' worth of achievements. The United States proudly recognizes this righteous citizen, devout public servant and giant among men.
  • Through her example and advocacy, Billie Jean Moffitt King has advanced the struggle for greater gender equality around the world. In an age of male-dominated sports, her pioneering journey took her from Long Beach, Calif., to the lawns of the All England Club and the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Her athletic acumen is matched only by her unwavering defense of equal rights. With Billie Jean King pushing us, the road ahead will be smoother for women, the future will be brighter for LGBT Americans, and our nation's commitment to equality will be stronger for all.
  • Rev. Joseph E. Lowery has marched through life with faith and purpose, carrying with him the legacy of a movement that touched America's conscience and changed its history. At the forefront of the major civil rights events of our time — from the Montgomery bus boycott to protests against apartheid — he has served as a tireless beacon for nonviolence and social justice. As a pastor and civil rights advocate, he co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and championed the cause of peace and freedom around the world. The United States proudly honors this outstanding leader.
  • As a warrior and living legend, history flows through Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow High Bird. Born on a reservation and raised by traditional grandparents, he became the first member of his tribe to earn a master's degree. For his valiant service in World War II, he was awarded the status of Crow War Chief, and his renowned studies of the First Americans and contributions to cultural and historical preservation have been critical to our understanding of America's history. Joe Medicine Crow is a symbol of strength and survival, and the United States honors him for his dedication to this country and to all Native Americans.
  • Harvey Bernard Milk dedicated his life to shattering boundaries and challenging assumptions. As one of the first openly gay elected officials in this country, he changed the landscape of opportunity for the nation's gay community. Throughout his life, he fought discrimination with visionary courage and conviction. Before his tragic death in 1978, he wisely noted, "Hope will never be silent," and called upon Americans to stay true to the guiding principles of equality and justice for all. Harvey Milk's voice will forever echo in the hearts of all those who carry forward his timeless message.
  • Sandra Day O'Connor has paved the way for millions of women to achieve their dreams. Completing law school in just two years, she graduated third in her class at a time when women rarely entered the legal profession. With grace and humor, tenacity and intelligence, she rose to become the first woman on the United States Supreme Court. Her historic 25-term tenure on the court was defined by her integrity and independence, and she has earned the nation's lasting gratitude for her invaluable contributions to history and the law.
  • Ambassador and actor, Sidney Poitier has left an indelible mark on American culture. Rising from the tomato farms of the Bahamas, his talent led him to Broadway, Hollywood and global acclaim. In front of black and white audiences struggling to right the nation's moral compass, Sidney Poitier brought us the common tragedy of racism, the inspiring possibility of reconciliation, and the simple joys of everyday life. Ultimately, the man would mirror the character, and both would advance the nation's dialogue on race and respect.
  • From stage to screen, Chita Rivera has captured America's imagination with her magnetic presence and radiant voice. Over a career that has spanned a half-century, she has received numerous accolades for her performances, including two Tony Awards, six additional Tony nominations, and the Kennedy Center Honors Award. As fearless as Anita in "West Side Story," and as self-reliant as Aurora in "Kiss of the Spider Woman," she has broken barriers under Broadway's lights and inspired a generation of women to follow in her remarkable footsteps. The United States honors Chita Rivera for her lifetime of achievement as one of America's great artists.
  • For Mary Robinson, the fight to end discrimination and suffering is an urgent moral imperative. She has been a trail-blazing crusader for women's rights in Ireland and a forceful advocate for equality and human rights around the world. Whether courageously visiting conflict-stricken regions, or working to inject concern for human rights into business and economic development, Mary Robinson continues this important work today, urging citizens and nations to make common cause for justice.
  • Dr. Janet Davison Rowley was the first scientist to identify a chromosomal translocation as the cause of leukemia and other cancers — considered among the most important medical breakthroughs of the past century. After enrolling at the University of Chicago at age 15, she went on to challenge the conventional medical wisdom about the cause of cancer in the 1970s, which had placed little emphasis on chromosomal abnormalities. Her work has proven enormously influential to researchers worldwide who have used her discovery to identify genes that cause fatal cancers and to develop targeted therapies that have revolutionized cancer care. The United States honors this distinguished scientist for advancing genetic research and the understanding of our most devastating diseases.
  • With unflagging devotion to justice, indomitable optimism, and an unmistakable sense of humor, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu has stirred the world's conscience for decades. As a man of the cloth, he has drawn the respect and admiration of a diverse congregation. He helped lead South Africa through a turning point in modern history, and with an unshakable humility and firm commitment to our common humanity, he helped heal wounds and lay the foundation for a new nation. Desmond Tutu continues to give voice to the voiceless and bring hope to those who thirst for freedom.
  • With his belief in the self-reliance of all people, Professor Muhammad Yunus has altered the face of finance and entrepreneurship. As an academic, he struggled with pervading economic theories and their effects on the people of his native Bangladesh. Yearning for a new way of lifting people out of poverty, he revolutionized banking to allow low-income borrowers access to credit. In the process, he has enabled citizens of the world's poorest countries to create profitable businesses, support their families and help build sustainable communities. In so doing, Muhammad Yunus has unleashed new avenues of creativity and inspired millions worldwide to imagine their own potential.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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