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Obama lauds Medal of Freedom recipients

President Barack Obama recognized a former president, a basketball legend and a civil rights hero Tuesday among the 15 recipients of the Medal of Freedom.
Barack Obama
President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Tuesday during the Medal of Freedom recipients ceremony.Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Rep. John Lewis has been to the White House on many occasions, but Tuesday's visit truly was unique. An "impossible dream," as the former civil rights activist would later describe it.

Lewis, former President George H.W. Bush and 13 others received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor for contributions to society.

A product of the 1960s civil rights movement, Lewis was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped organize sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in the South.
In 1965, as he led a peaceful march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., he and others were severely beaten by Alabama state troopers in what became known as "Bloody Sunday." The event is credited with helping to spur passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

President Barack Obama, who awarded the medals at a White House ceremony, said Lewis had taken to heart a quote that asks, "If not us, then who? If not now, then when?"

"Generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind: an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time," Obama said.

The Georgia congressman said the award was even more special coming from Obama.

"If someone had told me that one day I would be standing in the White House and an African-American president would be presenting me the Medal of Freedom I would say, 'Are you crazy? Are you out of your mind?'" he told reporters afterward. "It's just an impossible dream."

Some of the loudest applause was for Bush, who has devoted nearly 70 of his 86 years to public service, starting when he joined the Navy on his 18th birthday. He also was a congressman from Texas, U.N. ambassador, Republican Party chairman, U.S. envoy to China, director of central intelligence, vice president for two terms and the 41st president for one term.

"His life is a testament that public service is a noble calling," Obama said. Bush's wife, Barbara, and their children listened from the front row. "His humility and his decency reflect the very best of the American spirit. Those of you who know him, this is a gentleman."

A touching moment came during the presentation for Dr. Tom Little, an optometrist from New York who was killed by the Taliban last August during a humanitarian mission in Afghanistan. His wife, Libby, accepted. She appeared emotional and Obama rubbed her back as her husband's medal citation was read.

The other medal recipients are:

—John H. Adams, co-founder of Natural Resources Defense Council

—Maya Angelou, an author and poet who wrote and recited one of her works at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1992.

—Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway and one of the world's richest men. The famed investor is also a philanthropist and leader of an effort challenging the country's wealthiest people to step up their charitable giving.

—Jasper Johns, an artist whose work has dealt with themes of perception and identity. He is considered a major influence on pop, minimalist and conceptual art.

—Gerda Weissmann Klein, Holocaust survivor, author and founder of Citizenship Counts, an organization that teaches students to cherish being American citizens.

—Yo-Yo Ma, a world-renowned cellist and 16-time Grammy winner who is known for his interpretations of Bach and Beethoven. He played at Obama's inauguration and at other White House events.

—Sylvia Mendez, a civil rights activist of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent.

—Angela Merkel, the first woman and first East German to serve as chancellor of a unified Germany. She did not attend the ceremony, but Obama said she'd be paying him a visit soon.

—Stan Musial, Hall of Fame baseball player who spent 22 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals.

—Bill Russell, the former captain of the Boston Celtics and first black man to become an NBA head coach.

—Jean Kennedy Smith, founder of VSA, a nonprofit organization that promotes the artistic talents of people with disabilities.

—John J. Sweeney, president emeritus of the AFL-CIO.

President Harry S. Truman established the Presidential 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.