WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama awarded the nation's highest civilian honor to 16 "agents of change" on Wednesday, highlighting their accomplishments as examples of the heights a person can reach and the difference they can make in the lives of others.
"What unites them is a belief ... that our lives are what we make of them, that no barriers of race, gender or physical infirmity can restrain the human spirit, and that the truest test of a person's life is what we do for one another," Obama said at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, overflowing with guests as well as White House aides who came to glimpse the celebrities in their midst.
"The recipients of the Medal of Freedom did not set out to win this or any other award. They did not set out in pursuit of glory or fame or riches," the president continued. "Rather they set out, guided by passion, committed to hard work, aided by persistence, often with few advantages but the gifts, grace and good name God gave them."
Film star Sidney Poitier, civil rights icon the Rev. Joseph Lowery and tennis legend Billie Jean King joined former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa in receiving the honor, the first such medals awarded by Obama.
Another medal recipient, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., was at home battling brain cancer and mourning the death Tuesday of his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and did not attend the ceremony. His daughter, Kara, accepted the award for him.
Obama gave posthumous honors to former Republican Rep. Jack Kemp of New York, the quarterback-turned-politician who died in May, and gay rights activist Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in 1978.
The other recipients were:
• Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a leading breast cancer grass-roots organization.
• Dr. Pedro Jose Greer Jr., assistant dean of academic affairs at Florida International University School of Medicine and founder of the Camillus Health Concern, which treats thousands of homeless patients annually.
• Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge University physicist and mathematician known for his work on black holes and his best-selling 1988 book "A Brief History of Time." He has been almost completely paralyzed for years and communicates through an electronic voice synthesizer.
• Joe Medicine Crow, the last living Plains Indian war chief, who fought in World War II wearing war paint beneath his uniform. Obama met Medicine Crow during a presidential campaign stop last year, and was adopted as an honorary member of the Crow tribe.
• Chita Rivera, actor, singer, dancer and winner of two Tony awards.
• Mary Robinson, Ireland's first female president and one-time U.N. high commissioner for human rights. The decision to honor Robinson upset some Jewish groups and other friends of Israel who say she is biased against the Jewish state. Critics cite her role in the controversial Durban, South Africa, global racism conference in 2001, which the U.S. and Israel walked out of after participants criticized Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. The White House defended its decision to honor Robinson, saying she was being recognized for her work as a global advocate for women's and human rights.
• Dr. Janet Davison Rowley, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago.
• Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his global, pioneering work extending "micro loans" to poor people who don't have collateral.
The honorees were called up one at a time, as a military aide read aloud a White House statement of their accomplishments. Another military aide handed Obama the medals, which hung from blue ribbons. The president then clasped them around the recipients' necks and congratulated them.
There was no time allotted for the award recipients to speak, but that didn't stop Medicine Crow. It took a few seconds for him to come forward when his name was called. But passing the microphone on his way back to his seat, he declared: "I'm highly honored."
Lowery wiped away tears after he sat back down. Poitier, almost as if in character, stood ramrod tall and stared straight ahead when it was his turn, even as a smiling Obama approached him. King lifted the medal to her lips and kissed it.
"These extraordinary men and women, these agents of change, remind us that excellence is not beyond our abilities, that hope lies around the corner, and that justice can still be won in the forgotten corners of this world," Obama said. "They remind us that we each have it within our powers to fulfill dreams, to advance the dreams of others and to remake the world for our children."
President Harry S. Truman established the Medal of Freedom in 1945 to recognize civilians for their efforts during World War II. President John F. Kennedy reinstated the medal in 1963 to honor distinguished service.