Obama gives top civilian honours to Bob Dylan and Toni Morrison and calls them his heroes
PRESIDENT Barack Obama gave the United States' top civilian honor on Tuesday to musician Bob Dylan, novelist Toni Morrison and 11 other people he described as his heroes because of their powerful words, songs and actions.
"What sets these men and women apart is the incredible impact they have had on so many people - not in short, blinding bursts, but steadily, over the course of a lifetime," Obama said, presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom awards in a packed ceremony at the White House.
"They have enriched our lives and they have changed our lives for the better," he said.
In addition to famous political figures such as former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Israeli President Shimon Peres, Obama honored several lesser-known individuals for their work in civil rights and public health.
He recalled reading about one of the award winners, labor activist Dolores Huerta, when he was starting off as a community organizer and said that honoree John Doar, a senior official at the Justice Department during the 1960s, laid the groundwork for U.S. racial equality and voting rights.
"And I think it's fair to say that I might not be here had it not been for his work," Obama, the first black U.S. president, told the audience in the East Room.
He also praised recently retired University of Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt for being an inspiration to his hoops-loving daughters as well as a brave advocate for those who, like her, are suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
"Anybody who feels sorry for Pat will find themselves on the receiving end of that famous glare, or she might punch you," he said, to laughter.
The other honorees present included William Foege, who led the successful battle to eradicate smallpox disease, Gordon Hirabayashi, who fought Japanese-American internment during World War Two, astronaut and former Senator John Glenn, and retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.
Obama also gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom to two people who have died - Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low and Jan Karski, an officer in the Polish underground who carried his eyewitness account of Nazi atrocities to the outside world.
Peres did not attend the ceremony but will receive his award at a separate event, the White House said.
The president chooses the honorees.
"So many of these people are my heroes individually," Obama said during the ceremony, recalling how he read Morrison's novel "Song of Solomon" as a young man when he was "not just trying to figure out how to write, but also how to be and how to think."
"And I remember in college listening to Bob Dylan and my world opening up because he captured something about this country that was so vital," he said. "Everybody on this stage has marked my life in profound ways."
A pianist from the Marine Corps Band played Dylan's 1963 hit "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" before the ceremony started. The musician drew loud applause when he received the award in sunglasses and without showing emotion.
When it came time for Morrison to accept her medal, the acclaimed novelist smiled and embraced the president.
Past recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom include former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, South African anti-apartheid leader and former President Nelson Mandela, and slain civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT - The first woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State, a position she held from 1997 to 2001. Albright helped lead an international campaign against ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and sought to reduce the spread of nuclear weapons. The White House called her "a champion of democracy, human rights and good governance across the globe."
JOHN DOAR - As a senior Justice Department official during the 1960s, Doar advanced several notable civil rights cases and obtained convictions for the 1964 killings of three civil rights activists in Mississippi. He also led efforts to enforce the right to vote and served as special counsel to a House of Representatives committee investigating the Watergate scandal and considering articles of impeachment against President Nixon.
BOB DYLAN - Since releasing his first album in 1962, Dylan has written more than 600 songs and has won 11 Grammy awards. The White House said his work "had considerable influence on the civil rights movement in the 1960s and has had significant impact on American culture over the past five decades."
WILLIAM FOEGE - Foege, a physician and epidemiologist, helped lead the successful campaign to eliminate smallpox in the 1970s and became director of the Center for Disease Control in 1977, later leading the Carter Center and working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The White House said he "remains a champion on a wide range of issues, including child survival and development, injury prevention and preventative medicine."
JOHN GLENN - In 1962, Glenn became the third American in space and the first to orbit the Earth. The former U.S. Marine Corps pilot was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974 and in 1998 became the oldest person to visit space at the age of 77. Glenn is also recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal and the Congressional Space Medal of Honor. GORDON HIRABAYASHI - Hirabayashi, a U.S. citizen, defied the forced relocation and internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two. He was jailed for refusing an order to report to an internment camp. In 1987, after more than 40 years, the San Francisco Federal Appeals Court overturned his conviction. The following year, legislation was passed to grant reparations to surviving internees.
DOLORES HUERTA - Co-founder of the National Farmworkers Association, which became the United Farm Workers of America. The civil rights, workers and women's advocate was also active in California's labor movement and has worked to train community organizers across the country. JAN KARSKI - Karski, who died in 2000, served as an officer in the Polish Underground during World War Two. He saw first-hand the atrocities occurring under Nazi occupation and was among the first to tell the world about them. He studied then taught at Georgetown University and became a U.S. citizen in 1954.
JULIETTE GORDON LOW - Low, who died in 1927, founded the Girl Scouts, which has grown over the past 100 years into the largest educational organization for girls with more than 50 million members. The White House said the Girl Scouts teaches young women "self-reliance and resourcefulness" and encourages them to become active citizens in their communities.
TONI MORRISON - A celebrated novelist, Morrison's works are have been acclaimed for their insights into the African-American experience. Her fifth book, "Beloved," won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988, and in 1993 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
SHIMON PERES - The Israeli president and former prime minister won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his work as foreign minister during the Middle East peace talks that led to the Oslo Accords. The White House said Peres "has strengthened the unbreakable bonds between Israel and the United States" as an advocate for Israel's security and for peace.
JOHN PAUL STEVENS - Retired in 2010 as the third longest-serving Supreme Court Justice in U.S. history. Stevens, a World War Two veteran, was nominated to the highest U.S. court by President Gerald Ford. The White House noted his "independent, pragmatic and rigorous approach to judging" and said Stevens "left a lasting imprint on the law" in areas including civil rights. PAT SUMMITT - One of the best-known and most successful U.S. basketball coaches, who retired this year due to early-onset dementia. She coached the University of Tennessee women's team to eight national championships and coached the Olympic gold-winning U.S. women's team in 1984. The White House noted her work raising awareness about Alzheimer's disease, including through the Pat Summitt Foundation, which supports research and helps patients and their families.