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Obama Awards Presidential Medals of Freedom

President Barack Obama awards the Medal of Freedom to astronaut John Glenn in the East Room of the White Housem May 29, 2012 (AP)

President Barack Obama awards the Medal of Freedom to astronaut John Glenn in the East Room of the White Housem May 29, 2012 (AP)

WHITE HOUSE - President Barack Obama on Tuesday awarded the nation's highest civilian honor - the Presidential Medal of Freedom - to 13 individuals, including a former U.S. astronaut, an American music legend, and the first woman to serve as Secretary of State.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is awarded to those who have made "especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."

Bob Dylan was recognized as one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, John Glenn was cited for a long career that included being the first American to orbit the Earth and Madeleine Albright was honored for being the first woman to serve as Secretary of State.

"Through her consummate diplomacy and steadfast democratic ideals, Secretary Albright advanced peace in the Middle East, nuclear arms control, justice in the Balkans and human rights around the world, "a White House aide, read the Albright citation.

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Honored posthumously was Jan Karski, the former Polish underground army officer who provided eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust during World War II. Gordon Hirabayashi was honored for challenging the U.S. government's forced relocation and internment of Japanese Americans during the war.

President Obama said all of the honorees were talented and driven, and that they changed society.

"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," said President Obama. "Together, the honorees on this stage and the ones who could not be here, have moved us with their words. They have inspired us with their actions; they have enriched our lives and they have changed our lives for the better."

Other recipients included: William Foege, a physician and epidemiologist who helped lead the successful campaign to eradicate smallpox; and Delores Huerta, a civil rights, labor and women's advocate who co-founded the United Farm Workers of America.

Also honored were: U.S. former Supreme Court Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison, college basketball coach Pat Summitt and, posthumously, Juliette Gordon Low who founded the Girl Scouts of the United States of America.

John Doar, a former Department of Justice official, received the Medal of Freedom for his work protecting and enforcing civil rights during the 1960s. President Obama said that had it not been for Doar's work, he might not be in the White House today.

"He was the face of the Justice Department in the South," said Obama. "He was proof that the federal government was listening. And over the years, John escorted James Meredith to the University of Mississippi. He walked alongside the Selma to Montgomery march [by African Americans]. He laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting rights Act of 1965."

Israeli President Shimon Peres could not be present to receive his medal. President Obama said he has invited Mr. Peres to have dinner at the White House next month and would present him with his medal at that time.

At the end of the ceremony, Mr. Obama shared his personal thoughts, describing how some of the honorees had affected his life.

"I remember reading [the Morrison novel] "Song of Solomon" when I was a kid, and not just trying to figure out how to write, but also how to be and how to think," said President Obama. "And I remember in college listening to Bob Dylan and my world opening up because he captured something about this country that was so vital. And I think about Dolores Huerta - reading about her when I was starting off as a [community] organizer."

President Obama said the Medal of Freedom recipients had touched his life in some way and that all of them are heroes to him personally.

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