Writer Maya Angelou and civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., were among 15 announced recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom Nov. 17, the country’s highest civilian honor. It singles out those who have made contributions to the security or national interests of the U.S., to world peace or other significant endeavors.
“These outstanding honorees come from a broad range of backgrounds and they’ve excelled in a broad range of fields, but all of them have lived extraordinary lives that have inspired us, enriched our culture, and made our country and our world a better place,” President Obama said in a statement announcing the recipients. “I look forward to awarding them this honor.”
The award ceremony will take place at the White House in early 2011.
Maya Angelou, a world-renowned poet, author, educator and civil rights activist is currently the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. This is the third presidential award she’s received, following the Presidential Medal for the Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008.
Lewis, a longtime congressman, was a seminal figure during the Civil Rights Movement. While chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he helped organize the first lunch-counter sit-in in 1959, and was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in 1963. In 1965, he led the Selma-to-Montgomery march on what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” drawing a violent, turbulent Alabama police response that prompted the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Also honored was basketball legend Bill Russell. One of the most successful performers in professional sports, Russell led his Boston Celtic teams to 11 NBA championships in 13 years while also winning five most valuable player awards. He was the first African-American to become a coach of a major sports team at the professional level in the United States.
Among the other honorees were President George H.W. Bush, billionaire Warren Buffett, civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez and president emeritus of the AFL-CIO, John J. Sweeney.