President Barack Obama named 15 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Wednesday, including Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and President George H.W. Bush.
According to a White House news release, the medal is “the Nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals 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.”
The award was originally established by President Harry Truman in 1945 to honor World War II service members, but in 1963, President John F. Kennedy expanded the award to include civilians leading monumental change in times of peace.
The White House noted Lewis’ “giant” role in the civil rights movement as a primary merit for the honor. In 1959, at age 19, he helped organize the famous lunch counter sit-in where African-Americans protested segregation. He also spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, coordinated the Mississippi Freedom Project in 1964 and risked police violence and arrest by leading a 1965 Alabama march for equal voting rights, which later became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
“I am deeply moved and gratified by the President’s announcement that he will be awarding to me the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a February 2011 ceremony,” Lewis said in a release. “I feel more than lucky and very blessed that I have had an opportunity to play a small role in helping create a more perfect union.”
In addition to his roles as president, vice president and Texas Representative, the White House cited Bush’s advocacy on behalf of victims of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina and 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami disasters. It also noted his work as director of the CIA and as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, along with his service in the Navy during World War II.
Other nominees include German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the first woman and East German to serve in the post; Maya Angelou, author and poet; Warren Buffett, inventor and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, who pledged 99 percent of his net worth to philanthropies; Gerda Weissmann Klein, a Jewish Holocaust survivor and author; Yo-Yo Ma, considered by many as the world’s greatest cellist; Tom Little, an optometrist and three-decade Afghanistan-based philanthropist who was murdered by the Taliban in August; John Adams, an ardent environmentalist; Jasper Johns, an American artist; Sylvia Mendez, a Hispanic civil rights activist; Stan Musial, baseball Hall-of-Famer and former first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals; Bill Russell, the five-time winner of the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award and first African-American coach in the league; Jean Kennedy Smith, founder of nonprofit VSA and former ambassador to Ireland; and John Sweeney, labor union advocate and former president of the AFL-CIO.
“These outstanding honorees come from a broad range of backgrounds and they’ve excelled in a broad range of fields, but all of them have lived extraordinary lives that have inspired us, enriched our culture, and made our country and our world a better place,” Obama said in a statement. Recipients will be honored at a White House ceremony in early 2011.