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19 Americans Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

Rights Advocates, Pioneers Honored by Presidential Medals
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Watch video report from VOA's Zlatica Hoke.

President Barack Obama has awarded the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to 19 distinguished Americans.

Those awarded Monday include artists, activists and public servants.

Three U.S. civil rights workers murdered by members of a white supremacist group 50 years ago were awarded posthumously. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were slain as they participated in historic efforts to register blacks to vote in Mississippi. Their deaths, part of a conspiracy by the Ku Klux Klan, led to the first successful federal prosecution of a civil rights case in Mississippi.

Chaney was black; Goodman and Schwerner were white. The voting rights activists’ brutal murders were a driving force behind passage of sweeping anti-discrimination laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Medal of Freedom recipients include, clockwise from upper left, actresses Meryl Streep and Marlo Thomas, economist Robert Solow and golfer Charles Sifford.
Medal of Freedom recipients include, clockwise from upper left, actresses Meryl Streep and Marlo Thomas, economist Robert Solow and golfer Charles Sifford.

Retired professional golfer Charles Sifford, an African-American, is another civil rights pioneer honored. Now 92, he broke the Professional Golfers' Association's color barrier in the 1960s by playing in tournaments that until then only allowed white golfers. Despite harassment and death threats, he was the first black to win two PGA tournament events in 1967 and 1969.

The Medal of Freedom also went to actress Meryl Streep, who the president described as "truly one of America’s leading ladies."

When awarding Ethel Kennedy, widow of the late Senator Robert Kennedy, Obama said, "We give thanks to a person whose love for her family is matched by her devotion to her nation."

Obama also honored singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder and retiring U.S. Representative John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who is the longest-serving member of Congress. Another award winner is former U.S. Representative Abner Mikva, the Illinois Democrat.

Other honorees include composer Stephen Sondheim and longtime NBC journalist Tom Brokow. Another member of the distinguished group is Chilean-born author Isabel Allende, whose 21 books have sold 65 million copies in 35 languages.

The Medal of Freedom also has been awarded to activist, writer and curator Suzan Harjo, praised for helping to improve the lives of other Native Americans. Actress and activist Marlo Thomas was honored in part for leading outreach efforts for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Tennessee, which offers pediatric cancer treatments and research for children's catastrophic diseases.

Economist Robert Solow and physicist Mildred Dresselhau are also among those receiving the civilian honor.

Honored posthumously are choreographer Alvin Ailey, congresswoman Patsy Mink of Hawaii and Edward Roybal of California, founder of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

President John Kennedy established the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. Since then, it has been awarded to 500 people.

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