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Toni Morrison with President Obama
(Mandel Ngan/AFP)

(The Root) -- President Obama awarded the Medal of Freedom to 12 honorees on Tuesday for their contributions to peace and culture and other significant public or private endeavors. The president described the recipients of the nation's highest civilian honor as individuals who have inspired, enriched and changed people's lives.

"What sets these men and women apart is the incredible impact they have had on so many people -- not in short, blinding bursts, but steadily over the course of a lifetime," the president said before presenting the medals during a packed White House ceremony. "Some of them are household names; others have labored quietly out of the public eye. Most of them may never fully appreciate the difference they've made or the influence that they've had, but that's where our job comes in."

The recipients are Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison; former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; civil rights attorney John Doar, who litigated in the effort to implement the Voting Rights Act of 1965; singer-songwriter Bob Dylan; physician and epidemiologist William Foege; former U.S. Marine Corps pilot, astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn; sociologist Gordon Hirabayashi, who openly resisted the forced internment of Japanese Americans during World War II (his widow accepted on his behalf); labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta; Jan Karski, who served as an officer in the Polish Underground during World War II, reporting his accounts of the Holocaust to the world (accepted by a former Polish foreign minister); Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low (the medal was accepted by her great-nephew); Shimon Peres, president of Israel (not present at the ceremony, but he will receive his medal at a separate event); retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens; and Pat Summitt, former women's college-basketball head coach.

Of Toni Morrison, the president said:

"As a single mother working in a publishing company by day, she would carve out a little time in the evening to write, often with her two sons pulling on her hair and tugging at her earrings. Once a baby spit up on her tablet, so she wrote around it. Circumstances may not have been ideal, but the words that came out were magical.

"Toni Morrison's prose brings us that kind of moral and emotional intensity that few writers ever attempt. From Song of Solomon to Beloved, Toni reaches us deeply using a tone that is lyrical, precise, distinct and inclusive. She believes that language 'arcs toward the place where meaning might lie.' The rest of us are happy to be following along for the ride." 

Obama added that many of the honorees profoundly affected his own life. "What an extraordinary honor to be able to say thank you to all of them for the great work that they have done on behalf of this country and on behalf of the world."

Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.

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