Four African Americans are among the 16 recipients of this year’s Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor.

President Barack Obama announced the winners on Aug. 8, marking the 50th anniversary of the award, which was established by President Kennedy. Since its founding, the award has been conferred on more than 500 individuals who have made especially exceptional contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.

“The Presidential Medal of Freedom goes to men and women who have dedicated their own lives to enriching ours,” the president said in a statement. “This year’s honorees have been blessed with extraordinary talent, but what sets them apart is their gift for sharing that talent with the world. It will be my honor to present them with a token of our nation’s gratitude.”

Among the African-Americans who will be recognized this year are three men and one woman who have distinguished themselves in the fields of sports, civic engagement, philanthropy and the media.

Ernie Banks, or “Mr. Cub” as he is known to many, is one of the greatest baseball players of all time. During his 19 seasons with the Chicago Cubs, he played in 11 All-Star Games, hit more than 500 home runs, and became the first National League player to win Most Valuable Player honors in back-to-back years. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977, his first year of eligibility.

Bayard Rustin, who is being honored posthumously, is most known for organizing the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As an openly gay African-American, Rustin was an unyielding activist for civil rights, dignity, and equality for all. An advisor to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he promoted nonviolent resistance, participated in one of the first Freedom Rides, and fought tirelessly for marginalized communities at home and abroad.

Cordy Tindell “C.T.” Vivian is a distinguished minister, author, and organizer. A leader in the Civil Rights Movement and friend to Dr. King, he participated in Freedom Rides and sit-ins across our country. Dr. Vivian also helped found numerous civil rights organizations, including Vision, the National Anti-Klan Network, and the Center for Democratic Renewal. In 2012, he returned to serve as interim President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Oprah Winfrey is a household name around the world. One of the world’s most successful broadcast journalists, she is best known for creating “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which became the highest rated talk show in America for 25 years. Winfrey has long been active in philanthropic causes and expanding opportunities for young women. She has received numerous awards throughout her career, including the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award in 2002 and the Kennedy Center Honors in 2010.

The foursome joins an august group of Blacks who have previously received this honor, including Sidney Poitier, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Maya Angelou, among many others.

The recipients will be honored at a ceremony later this year.


Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO