During what he called one of his “favorite events every year,” President Obama presented 16 outstanding individuals, including four African Americans, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
President John F. Kennedy created the Presidential Medal of Freedom 50 years ago to honor exceptional people for their courage and contributions to society during their careers.
The president praised Ernie Banks for his play in the Negro Leagues and for being the first Black player on the Chicago Cubs major league baseball team. Nicknamed “Mr. Cub,” Banks, won Most Valuable Player awards in 1958 and 1959 and played in 14 All- Star games. Banks hit 512 home runs during his career.
C.T. Vivian, a Baptist minister and adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was honored for his work leading the Freedom Riders and his efforts to register Black voters in Selma, Ala., where he was bloodied by Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark after leading a Black delegation downtown to register.
President Obama also recognized Bayard Rustin, posthumously, for his work and sacrifices during the Civil Rights Movement. Rustin, an openly gay civil rights leader, was the key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The president honored Oprah Winfrey for her incredible broadcast journalism career and her charitable contributions. Winfrey can add the Presidential Medal of Freedom to her resume, which also includes Bob Hope Humanitarian Award and the Kennedy Center Honors Award. Oprah’s daytime talk show ran for more than 4500 episodes.
“Oprah’s greatest strength has always been her ability to help us discover the best in ourselves. Michelle and I count ourselves among her many devoted fans and friends,” said President Obama.
President Bill Clinton earned his Presidential Medal of Freedom for his public service that “was just getting started” when he left office.
“[President Clinton] doesn’t stop,” said Obama. “He’s helped lead relief efforts after the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake. His foundation and global initiative have helped to save or improve the lives of literally hundreds of millions of people.”
Also honored were Ben Bradlee, a former executive editor of The Washington Post who oversaw the newspaper’s award-winning coverage of the Watergate scandal; Late Senator Daniel Inouye (honored posthumously), the first Japanese American to serve in Congress; Daniel Kahneman, a scholar who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002; Richard Lugar, a former Senator from Indiana who led the effort to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons and Loretta Lynn, the country music icon who won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.
In addition, President Obama recognized Mario Molina, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and environmental scientist; Gloria Steinem, the women’s rights activist and co-founder of Ms. magazine; Arturo Sandoval, a Grammy Award-winning jazz musician; Sally Ride (honored posthumously), the first American female astronaut to travel to space; Dean Smith, the former head coach of the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team who won two national titles and graduated 96 percent of his players; and Patricia Wald, the first woman to serve on the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
President Obama said: “These are the men and women who in their extraordinary lives remind us all of the beauty of the human spirit, the values that define us as Americans, the potential that lives inside of all of us.”