Biden awards the Medal of Freedom to Nancy Pelosi, Medgar Evers, Michelle Yeoh, Al Gore and others

President Biden stands with Michelle Yeoh during a ceremony in the the White House.
President Biden awards the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to actor Michelle Yeoh on Friday.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

President Biden bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on 19 people Friday, including civil rights icons such as the late Medgar Evers, political leaders such as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and actor Michelle Yeoh.

Biden said at the White House that the award is “the nation’s highest civilian honor” and that this year’s recipients are “incredible people whose relentless curiosity, inventiveness, ingenuity and hope have kept faith in a better tomorrow.”

President Biden hugs Opal Lee
President Biden hugs Opal Lee during a White House ceremony Friday awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Lee is an activist best known for pushing to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Biden did so in 2021.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

Clarence B. Jones, one of the recipients, said in an interview that he thought a prankster was on the line when he answered the telephone and heard the person on the other end say they were calling from the White House.

“I said, ‘Is this a joke or is this serious?’” recalled Jones, 93. The caller swore it was serious and said they were calling with the news that Biden wanted to recognize Jones with the medal. He said in an interview that he felt “very touched” after he digested what the caller had said.

Jones was honored for his activism during the civil rights movement. The lawyer provided legal counsel to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and helped write the opening paragraphs of the “I Have a Dream” speech that King delivered at the Lincoln Memorial at the 1963 March on Washington.

The White House said the recipients made “exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors.”

The 10 men and nine women hail from the worlds of politics, sports, entertainment, civil rights and LGBTQ+ advocacy, science and religion. Three medals were awarded posthumously.

Seven politicians were among the recipients: former New York mayor and philanthropist Michael R. Bloomberg; U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.); former Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.); climate activist and former Vice President Al Gore; Biden’s former climate envoy, former Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.); the late former Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.); and Pelosi, the Democratic congresswoman from San Francisco and the only female speaker of the House.


Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, one of the largest gang intervention programs in L.A. County, has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Biden.

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Biden in his remarks acknowledged that Clyburn’s endorsement in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary helped him score a thundering win in South Carolina, powering him to his party’s nomination and ultimately the White House. Bloomberg mounted a short-lived bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

In addition to representing North Carolina in the Senate, Dole served as Transportation secretary and Labor secretary and was president of the American Red Cross. She now leads a foundation supporting military caregivers.

President Biden puts a medal around Rep. Nancy Pelosi's neck.
President Biden awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, the only woman ever elected speaker of the House.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

Biden noted Pelosi’s legislative achievements and her actions during the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, and said that “history will remember you, Nancy, as the greatest speaker of the House of Representatives.”

Evers received posthumous recognition for his work more than six decades ago fighting segregation in Mississippi in the 1960s as the NAACP’s first field officer in the state. He was 37 when he was fatally shot in the driveway of his home in June 1963. His daughter, Reena, who was 8 when her father was killed, accepted his medal.

Yeoh made history last year by becoming the first Asian woman to win an Academy Award for lead actress for her performance in “Everything, Everywhere All at Once.”


Jim Thorpe, the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States, who died in 1953, was also honored.

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Another recipient, Judy Shepard, co-founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation, named after her son, a gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who died in 1998 after a brutal homophobic attack.

The other medal recipients were:

— Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit Catholic priest who founded and runs Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention and rehabilitation program based in Los Angeles.

— Phil Donahue, a journalist and former daytime TV talk-show host.

Katie Ledecky, the most decorated female swimmer in history.

Opal Lee, a civil rights activist best known for pushing to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Biden did so in 2021.

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— Ellen Ochoa, the first Latino woman in space and the second female director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center.


— Jane Rigby, an astronomer who is chief scientist of the world’s most powerful telescope. She grew up in Delaware, Biden’s home state.

Teresa Romero, president of the United Farm Workers and the first Latino woman to lead a national union in the U.S. The union backed Biden in 2020 and has endorsed his reelection bid.

In 2022, Biden presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 17 people, including gymnast Simone Biles, the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and gun control advocate and former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. In 2017, President Obama presented Biden, his vice president, with the medal a week before their administration ended.

Superville writes for the Associated Press.