President Barack Obama bestowed the National Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, to a host of prominent Americans today, including actor Sidney Poitier, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Obama gave a particularly moving tribute to Senator Ted Kennedy, the last to be cited, and said at the start of the ceremony:
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. 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.
All of the attendees beamed as Obama distributed the medals. The most touching moments came when Poitier and Obama gave one another a longer-than average hug, swaying back and forth for about half a minute as the crowd cheered them on. Likewise, Lowery, the civil rights icon and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who delivered the memorable “mellow yellow” benediction at Obama’s inauguration, appeared to choke up as the first black president placed the award around his neck. The extraordinary symbolism, it seems, was not lost on him.
The affair was littered with the friends and families of the distinguished awardees, whom the White House cited as follows:
Nancy Goodman Brinker: The founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the world’s leading grassroots breast cancer organization.
Pedro José Greer, Jr.: A physician and the founder of Camillus Health Concern, an agency that provides medical care to over 10,000 homeless patients a year in Miami.
Stephen Hawking: an internationally-recognized theoretical physicist.
Jack Kemp: a former U.S. Congressman, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Republican Nominee for Vice President.
Sen. Edward Kennedy: Known as the “Lion of the Senate,” Senator Kennedy is widely respected on both sides of the aisle for his commitment to progress and his ability to legislate.
Billie Jean King: an acclaimed professional tennis player in the 1960s and 1970s, who has helped champion gender equality in all areas of public life.
Rev. Joseph Lowery: a leader in the U.S. civil rights movement, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), with Dr. Martin Luther King.
Joe Medicine Crow – High Bird: the last living Plains Indian war chief, is the author of seminal works in Native American history and culture.
Harvey Milk: the first openly gay elected official from a major city in the United States.
Sandra Day O’Connor: the first woman ever to sit on the United States Supreme Court.
Sidney Poitier: a groundbreaking actor and the first African American to be nominated and win a Best Actor Academy Award.
Chita Rivera an accomplished and versatile actress, singer, and dancer, who has won Two Tony Awards and received seven more nominations.
Mary Robinson: the first female President of Ireland and a former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Janet Davison Rowley : the first scientist to identify a chromosomal translocation as the cause of leukemia and other cancers.
Desmond Tutu: an Anglican Archbishop emeritus who was a leading anti-apartheid activist in South Africa.
Muhammad Yunus: a global leader in anti-poverty efforts, who pioneered the use of “micro-loans” to poor individuals without collateral.
It's safe to say Obama did better than George w. Bush.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.