President Obama recognized 18 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, including Tom Brokaw, Stevie Wonder and Meryl Streep, in a warm and at times lighthearted ceremony Monday.
“Once a year, we set aside this event to celebrate people who have made America stronger, wiser, more humane, and more beautiful,” Obama said.
He paid tribute to an array of public figures, including household names such as Brokaw and Streep and less well-known experts in their fields, including former lawmaker and judge Abner Mikva and Native American activist Suzan Harjo.
Among the recipients was Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), due to retire at the end of the year after the longest congressional career in history. Obama praised his work on several historic initiatives, including votes on Medicare and longtime advocacy for healthcare reform.
“His life reminds us that change takes time, and change takes courage,” Obama said.
Several recipients were awarded posthumously, including James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the three civil rights workers killed during the Freedom Summer of 1964.
Their award was a reminder of “the arc of the nation towards justice,” Obama said.
“It took 44 days to find their bodies and 41 years to bring the lead perpetrator to justice,” he said.
Also honored was Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert Kennedy and human rights advocate. The award was reinstated under her brother-in-law, President John F. Kennedy, more than 50 years earlier.
The late Rep. Edward Roybal, a Californian who advocated for Latino representation in politics, and the late Rep. Patsy Takemoto Mink, who represented Hawaii as the first woman of color in Congress, were also recognized.
Obama praised the accomplishments of winners who overcame hardship to achieve success, including novelist Isabel Allende, who was exiled from her home country of Chile by a military government.
The president spoke of his personal connections to several recipients, saying he was enamored of Streep after decades of her award-winning performances. He also said his first album was a copy of Wonder’s “Talking Book” and that he wore it down from repeat plays.
“For more than 50 years, Stevie has channeled his inner visions into messages of hope and healing,” he said. “Some of his songs helped us fall in love, others mended our hearts.”
One recipient, composer Stephen Sondheim, was unable to attend and will receive his award during next year’s reception.