Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to Bill Russel, Maya Angelou and civil rights leaders

President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Tuesday to former President George H.W. Bush and 14 others, including poet Maya Angelou, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, investor Warren Buffett and basketball legend Bill Russell.

The medal is the nation’s highest civilian honor and is awarded to individuals who have made significant contributions “to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

“This is one of the things I most look forward to every year,” Obama said, calling the honorees “the best of who we are and who we aspire to be.”

The President praised Angelou for rising above an abusive childhood to inspire others with her words, saying her voice has “spoken to millions, including my mother, which is why my sister is named Maya.”

He quoted Angelou, saying, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again,” and bent down to kiss her cheek as he presented her with the medal.

The president had the following to say about Celtics Legend Bill Russell.

Bill Russell, the man, is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men. He marched with King; he stood by Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve the black Celtics, he refused to play in the scheduled game. He endured insults and vandalism, but he kept on focusing on making the teammates who he loved better players, and made possible the success of so many who would follow. And I hope that one day, in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man.

The other recipients on Tuesday were artist Jasper Johns; Gerda Weissmann Klein, a writer and Holocaust survivor; Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a leader in the civil rights movement; Tom Little, an optometrist killed by the Taliban in August who received the honor posthumously; Sylvia Mendez, a Latino civil rights activist; German Chancellor Angela Merkel (who was unable to attend) Hall of Famer Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals; and Jean Kennedy Smith, an advocate for the disabled.

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