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John Dingell, Ed Roybal Honored at White House

Dingell is the longest serving member of Congress ever. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Two congressional trailblazers were among the 19 people to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom Monday, the highest honor awarded to a civilian.  

While Stevie Wonder smiled broadly as President Barack Obama related that one of Wonder’s records was the first he ever purchased with his own money, Obama also paid his respects to the late Rep. Edward Roybal, D-Calif., founder of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and retiring Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., the longest-serving member of Congress ever.

“I could not have been prouder to have John by my side when I signed the Affordable Care Act into law,” Obama said in the East Room after recapping Dingell’s support for civil rights and health care in his years since assuming his office in 1955. “His life reminds us that change takes time, it takes courage and persistence, but if we push hard enough and long enough change is possible.”

Also receiving the medal were scientists, artists, writers and dancers. Tom Brokaw, a well respected and influential journalist, was honored. Roybal’s daughter, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., received the medal for her late father. "When Edward told [Speaker Tip O'Neill] he was starting the [Congressional Hispanic Caucus], there were so few Hispanics, the joke was they could fit them in a ... phone booth. He saw beyond the times," Obama said of Roybal.  

Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., and a prominent activist, received the award as well.

James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, civil rights workers who were killed on June 21, 1964, near Philadelphia, Miss., after attempting to register voters, were also awarded the medal.

“While they’re often remembered for how they died, we honor them today for how they lived: with the idealism and courage of youth,” Obama said of the three whose deaths fueled inspiration for the Civil Rights Act’s passage.

The Medal of Freedom is awarded to individuals who make important contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, or to culturally significant interests. The award was created by executive order in 1963.  

Related: John Dingell to Review Presidential Medal of Freedom Roll Call Results Map: Results and District Profiles for Every Seat Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.