Commander and Chief: Obama Honors Medal Picks

16 honored with highest award government can give a civilian

Brainiacs, athletes and cultural icons were on hand at the White House, as President Obama personally bestowed 16 Presidential Medals of Freedom.

Anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu, Sen. Ted Kennedy, wheelchair-bound genius Stephen Hawking, actor Sidney Poitier and tennis great Billie Jean King were among the recipients of the medal.

First presented in 1945 by President Truman, the award is the highest honor a civilian can earn from the U.S. government. The President chooses the recipients, based on "especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, or through cultural or other significant pubic or private endeavors."

“These outstanding men and women represent an incredible diversity of backgrounds," Obama said before the Wednesday afternoon ceremony. "Their relentless devotion to breaking down barriers and lifting up their fellow citizens sets a standard to which we all should strive. It is my great honor to award them the Medal of Freedom."

Here are the other recipients:

  • Nancy Goodman Brinker, founder of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation.
  • Dr. Pedro Jose Greer, founder of Camillus Health Concern, an organization that provides medical care to the homeless.
  • Jack Kemp, the late vice presidential candidate and former pro football star who urban communities.
  • The Rev. Joseph Lowry, a longtime civil rights leader.
  • Joe Medicine Crow- High Bird, the last living Plains Indian war chief.
  • Harvey Milk, the assassinated San Francisco mayor who was the first openly gay elected official from a major U.S. city.
  • Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to be a Supreme Court Justice.
  • Chita Rivera, a Tony award winning singer and dancer.
  • Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland.
  • Dr. Janet Davison Rowley, a scientist who has played a leading role in research of leukemia and other cancers.
  • Muhammad Yunus, pioneer of ‘micro-loans’ that provide credit to poor individuals.
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