President Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Oprah Winfrey during a ceremony at White House, Nov. 20, 2013.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Recognized for their outstanding contributions to the United States, four African Americans received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in a Wednesday morning ceremony at the White House.

In a presentation in the East Room attended by first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, President Obama awarded this year's medals to legendary baseball player Ernie Banks; distinguished minister, author and organizer Cordy Tindell "C.T." Vivian; and media trailblazer Oprah Winfrey. Civil rights activist Bayard Rustin received the honor posthumously.

Others among the 16 honorees were former President Bill Clinton, country music legend Loretta Lynn and renowned women's rights activist Gloria Steinem.

The Medal of Freedom was established 50 years ago by President John F. Kennedy to honor those who have made outstanding contributions to the security or national interests of the U.S., to world peace or to other significant public or private endeavors. The ceremony comes two days before the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination. In the afternoon, the president and the first lady will visit Arlington National Cemetery to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony in honor of his life and legacy.

Read more about the African-American Medal of Freedom recipients:

Ernie Banks

Known to many as “Mr. Cub,” Banks is one of the greatest baseball players of all time. During his 19 seasons with the Chicago Cubs, he played in 11 All-Star games, hit more than 500 home runs and became the first National League player to win Most Valuable Player honors in back-to-back years. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, his first year of eligibility. 

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Bayard Rustin (posthumous)

Rustin was an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity and equality for all. An advisor to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he promoted nonviolent resistance, participated in one of the first Freedom Rides, organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and fought tirelessly for marginalized communities at home and abroad. As an openly gay African American, Rustin stood at the intersection of several of the fights for equal rights.

Cordy Tindell 'C.T.' Vivian

Vivian is a distinguished minister, author and organizer. A leader in the civil rights movement and friend to Martin Luther King Jr., he participated in Freedom Rides and sit-ins across the country. Vivian also helped found numerous civil rights organizations, including Vivian's Vision, the National Anti-Klan Network and the Center for Democratic Renewal. In 2012, he returned to serve as interim president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

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Oprah Winfrey

Winfrey is one of the world’s most successful broadcast journalists. She is best-known for creating The Oprah Winfrey Show, which became the highest rated talk show in America for 25 years. Winfrey has long been active in philanthropic causes and expanding opportunities for young women. She has received numerous awards throughout her career, including the Bob Hope Humanitarian award in 2002 and the Kennedy Center Honors award in 2010.

Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's senior staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.