By Dorinda White, NNPA Contributor –
(NNPA) Washington, D.C.-President Barack Obama awarded the nation's highest civilian honor to a diverse group of recipients, including three African Americans prominently known for their civil rights activism. The president and First Lady Michelle Obama honored the winners at a White House ceremony this week.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is presented to individuals recognized for "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."
Among the 15 recipients of the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom were Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, celebrated author and poet, Dr. Maya Angelou and former basketball great Bill Russell. These well-known African Americans received their medals along with former President George H.W. Bush, businessman Warren Buffett, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, amongst others. It was especially befitting that the African American Medal of Freedom recipients were honored for their achievements during Black History Month.
One of the African American awardees, Civil Rights hero Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), helped to organize the first lunch counter sit-in in 1959 at the age of 19, and was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. "John Lewis is not only an American hero and a giant of the Civil Rights Movement but time and time again, John Lewis has faced down death and today is the conscience of the U.S. Congress,” said President Obama. “He is an American who knew that change could not wait for another place or time. Since 1987, John Lewis has continued his service to the nation as the U.S. Representative for Georgia's 5th District, which encompasses all of Atlanta. From his activism in the civil rights movement to serving 25 years in U.S. House of Representatives, he rose with fortitude and purpose to organize during the civil rights movement.” Lewis received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his pursuit of equality and justice for all.
Basketball great Bill Russell was voted the National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player five times. He was the first African-American coach in national sports. He is known to be a staunch advocate for civil rights. "When Bill Russell was in junior high school he got cut from his basketball team. He learned from that. He was the first African American to coach a major league sports team of any sort,” said Obama. “More than any athlete of his time, he is defined as a winner. When asked if he was a basketball player, he'd reply, "That's what I do, not who I am. I am a man who plays basketball." He endured insults and vandalism as a professional Black basketball player and coach. However, through it all he focused on making his teammates better players.” Bill Russell marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and has been a consistent advocate of equality. Russell received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his efforts which helped to change the culture of a sport and the course of a nation.
Dr. Angelou’s words and actions continue to stir our souls, energize our bodies, liberate our minds, and heal our hearts. Angelou, a prominent and celebrated author, poet, educator, producer, actress, filmmaker, and civil rights activist, is currently the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Dr. Angelou served on two presidential committees, and was awarded the Presidential Medal for the Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008.
“Dr. Maya Angelou, out of youth marked by pain and injustice, rose to fight for civil rights. Through soaring poetry and prose she has spoken to the conscience of our nation," said President Obama. The President bent down to kiss Dr. Angelou on the cheek after putting the Medal of Freedom around her neck. During the President's speech, he said Dr. Angelou had such an impression on his mother, she named her daughter Maya. Dr. Angelou received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her poetry and activism.
The complete list of the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom award recipients is as follows: former President George H. W. Bush, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Congressman John Lewis, Natural Resources Defense Council co-founder John Adams, poet and activist Maya Angelou (Winston-Salem NC native), Industrialist and Philanthropist Warren Buffet, Artist Jasper Johns, Civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez, VSA founder and former Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith, Holocaust survivor and activist Gerda Weissmann Klein, Dr. Tom Little (posthumous) who was killed in Afghanistan, Musician/cellist Yo-Yo Ma, former Boston Celtic basketball player Bill Russell, Baseball Hall of Famer Stan Musial, and former AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.