highest civilian honor

“For your faith in your fellow Americans, for your love of country, and for your lifetime of service that will endure through the generations…I am proud to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction to my brother, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.” —President Obama surprising Vice President Biden with the nation’s highest civilian honor

Maya Angelou

Text from Bad Girls Throughout History by Ann Shen

Many consider Maya Angelou (1928–2014) a U.S. national treasure. A writer, activist, filmmaker, actor, and lecturer well into her eighties, Angelou transcended her humble upbringing in deeply racist Arkansas to create a vast body of work that helped to change the landscape of American culture. After a traumatic childhood event that she would later chronicle in her game-changing memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou became extraordinarily gifted in arts and literature and earned a scholarship to a San Francisco high school. As a teen, she became the first African-American female cable car conductor in San Francisco. She became a mom at sixteen and married a Greek aspiring musician, flouting the existing laws forbidding interracial marriage. Angelou studied dance with legendary choreographer Alvin Ailey and became a staple on the calypso music and dance scene as a performer. She also toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. After meeting novelist John Oliver Killens in 1959, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild and published her first written work. She became a civil rights activist and worked alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Angelou would go on to write thirty-six books, earning the honor of both being on the banned books list and holding the record for the longest-running nonfiction book on The New York Times’ bestseller list.

In addition to roles in producing, writing, and directing film and television, Angelou became the first African-American woman to pen a screenplay that was actually made into a film, the Pulitzer Prize–nominated Georgia, Georgia. She won three Grammys for her spoken word albums, served on two presidential committees, and became the first female poet to compose and recite a poem for a presidential inauguration (President  Bill Clinton’s in 1993). Showered with accolades at the end of her life, Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama in 2010. Angelou was fittingly recognized in her lifetime for her work that opened America’s hearts and minds.

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In surprise ceremony, Obama awards Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom

President Obama bestowed the nation’s highest civilian honor on Vice President Biden Thursday, calling his running mate and presidential understudy “the best vice president America has ever had.”

The surprise State Room ceremony was alternately humorous and poignant, with Biden turning his face from the audience to wipe away his tears.

“I had no inkling,” Biden said, saying he thought the event was supposed to be for first lady Michelle Obama. He jokingly fired his chief of staff for not telling him. “I don’t deserve this, but I know this came from the president’s heart.”

Only two other vice presidents have received the honor. President Gerald Ford awarded it to his vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, in 1977, and President Jimmy Carter awarded it to Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, in 1980.

But Biden’s medal also came with an additional rare honor: The Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction. That additional designation has been bestowed to only three others: Pope John Paul II, President Ronald Reagan and former secretary of State Colin Powell.

(Photo: Michael Reynolds, EPA)

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Watch Ellen DeGeneres tearfully accept one of Obama’s last Presidential Medals of Freedom

On Tuesday President Obama gave out his last Presidential Medals of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The star-studded list of 21 recipients included Michael Jordan, Bill and Melinda Gates, Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, and Diana Ross — all of whom Obama saidhad touched him in a “powerful personal way” and helped shape his presidency.

Many of the recipients have been critical of President-elect Donald Trump or have praised Democrats.

But when Ellen DeGeneres came up to accept her award, it was a particularly potent reminder of how different the next administration is likely to be, and the warm inclusivity that Obama inhibited while in office.

DeGeneres teared up as a White House aide introduced her and praised her courage in blazing a trail for LGBTQ equality: “At a pivotal moment, her courage and candor helped change the hearts and minds of million of Americans, accelerating our nation’s constant drive towards equality and acceptance for all,” the aide said.

“Ellen DeGeneres has showed us that a single individual can make the world a more fun, more open more loving place, so long as we just keep swimming,” he added, referring to DeGeneres’s role as Dory in Finding Nemo.

Then Obama gave DeGeneres the medal and an affectionate hug.

“It’s useful, when you think about this incredible collection of people, to realize this is what makes us the greatest nation on earth,” Obama said at the ceremony. “Not because of our differences, but because in our differences we find something in common to share. And what a glorious gift that is.”

Ellen DeGeneres first publicly came out as a lesbian in 1997, almost two decades ago, and incurred conservative backlash for a few years. She staged a comeback in 2003, with her groundbreaking standup special, Here and Now, her beloved role in Finding Nemo, and the premiere of her hit daytime talkshow, The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

Now that marriage equality is the law of the land and LGBTQ people are more visible than ever, it can be easy to forget what a profoundly different time 1997 was for gay and lesbian Americans.

But given the justifiable fear many LGBTQ people feel about a Trump-Pence administration, it’s important to remember that the battle for equality is far from over.

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“You see Joe’s heart in the way he consoles families, dealing with cancer, backstage after an event; when he meets kids fighting through a stutter of their own, he gives them his private phone number and keeps in touch with them long after.  To know Joe Biden is to know love without pretense, service without self-regard, and to live life fully.

As one of his long-time colleagues in the Senate, who happened to be a Republican, once said, ‘If you can’t admire Joe Biden as a person, you got a problem.  He’s as good a man as God ever created.’” —President Obama awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to Vice President Joe Biden

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Biden awarded presidential Medal of Freedom

(CNN) President Barack Obama surprised an emotional Vice President Joe Biden Thursday by presenting him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, during a White House ceremony.

“For your faith in your fellow Americans, for your love of country and for your lifetime of service that will endure through the generations, I’d like to ask the military aide to join us on stage,” Obama said in the ceremony. “For my final time as President, I am pleased to award our nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”

Biden, who appeared extremely emotional during the tribute and was seen tearing up, accepted the award but said he did not deserve it.

“This honor is not only well beyond what I deserve, but it’s a reflection of the extent and generosity of your spirit,” Biden said. “I don’t deserve this but I know it came from the President’s heart.”

[Full story here]

Dorothy Height

An unsung hero in the civil & women’s rights movement, she was a key organizer for the “March on Washington” with MLK Jr, was a president of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, and received both the Presidential Medal of Freedom & Congressional Gold Medal. She even scored a Google Doodle. What?

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Happy birthday to Salma Hayek Pinault! 3 quick facts about this iconic actor:

- Hayek donated over $75K to women’s shelters and anti-domestic violence groups in Mexico.
-  On a UNICEF visit to Sierra Leone, she breastfed a baby whose mother could not produce milk.
- In 2011, she was named a Knight of the Legion d'Honneur, France’s highest civilian honor, for her philanthropic efforts

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After all of the Trump-related golden shower bullshit of yesterday, I can’t think of a better counterpoint than today’s surprise announcement by President Obama awarding VP Joe Biden the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Google Doodle celebrating activist Dorothy Height (1912-2010).

From The Washington Post:

When first lady Eleanor Roosevelt needed to be lobbied on behalf of civil rights during Harlem protests, she, young Dorothy Height the YWCA worker, was there.

When President Eisenhower needed to be urged to act on school desegregation, she, as a voice of persuasion and firsthand experience, was there.

When the Rev. Martin Luther King spoke before the Lincoln Memorial at the 1963 March on Washington, she, standing right on the platform of history, was there.

And in 1994, when President Clinton was awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she — as recipient of the nation’s highest civilian honor — was there.

So is it beyond fitting that when you go to Google’s home page today — on the 102nd anniversary of Dorothy Height’s birth — she is there.

Katherine Johnson (1918- )

Art by Elin (tumblr)

When Katherine was a girl, there was no high school for black students in her rural hometown.  Katherine’s parents were so committed to their children’s education that they moved 120 miles from White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia to Institute, West Virginia to give their children access to a high school education.  

Katherine graduated high school at age 14 and enrolled in the historically black West Virginia State College (today West Virginia State University).  She graduated at age 18 with a double major in Math and French and began teaching elementary school.

In 1938, the Supreme Court ruled that state universities must be available to students of all races (Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada).  This ruling did not require state universities to integrate, it only required that states offer equivalent educational opportunities for all citizens.  State funded historically black colleges and universities were considered equivalent programs.  When there was not an existing equivalent program for black students within the state education system, states had the choice of funding a new program or integrating an existing program.  At this time, there was no graduate program in math for black students in West Virginia.  West Virginia opted to integrate their existing graduate programs and in 1940, Katherine enrolled as a graduate student at West Virginia University in Morganstown.  One of three students chosen to integrate West Virginia University, Katherine was the only woman and thus, she was the first black female graduate student at West Virginia University.

Katherine left graduate school without completing her degree to become a stay at home mother.  In 1951, Katherine heard from her sister in law that National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was looking to hire female mathematicians, particularly black female mathematicians.  Katherine applied and was offered a job as a “computer.”  

Although NACA employed both genders and all races, Katherine still faced barriers to her advancement.  NACA was in Newport News, VA, part of the segregated South.  Facilities within NACA were racially segregated to the point that black and white “computers” worked in different rooms.  Female “computers” were under the supervision of male engineers and women were not generally included in the decision making.  Katherine invited herself to higher level meetings and eventually won the approval of the male engineers.  She joined the Flight Research Division of NACA, the precursor to the space program, and in 1958, NACA became NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration).  

As an aerospace technologist, Katherine worked to calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard’s 1959 space flight and the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission.  When NASA began using computer calculations rather than “computer” calculations in 1962, Katherine helped establish the accuracy of the new technology by double checking the math.  Katherine worked at NASA until her retirement in 1986.   Over the course of her career, she co-authored 26 scientific papers.

In November 2015, Katherine was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian honor.  

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M.S. Subbulakshmi (16 September 1916 – 11 December 2004)

  • First musician ever to be awarded the Bharat Ratna (India’s highest civilian honor)
  • First Indian musician to receive the Ramon Magsaysay award, often considered Asia’s Nobel Prize.
  • Honored with Padma Vibhushan (India’s 2nd highest civilian honor) and Padma Bhushan (India’s 3rd highest civilian honor)
  • First woman recipient of the title Sangeetha Kalanidhi (Treasure Chest of Music)

President Barack Obama presents  the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Meryl Streep, in the East Room of the White House. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the Nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors - November 24, 2014 ()

Statement by the President on the Death of Former Israeli President Shimon Peres

There are few people who we share this world with who change the course of human history, not just through their role in human events, but because they expand our moral imagination and force us to expect more of ourselves. My friend Shimon was one of those people.

Shimon Peres once said that, “I learned that public service is a privilege that must be based on moral foundations.” Tonight, Michelle and I join people across Israel, the United States and around the world in honoring the extraordinary life of our dear friend Shimon Peres—a Founding Father of the State of Israel and a statesman whose commitment to Israel’s security and pursuit of peace was rooted in his own unshakeable moral foundation and unflagging optimism.

I will always be grateful that I was able to call Shimon my friend.  I first visited him in Jerusalem when I was a senator, and when I asked for his advice, he told me that while people often say that the future belongs to the young, it’s the present that really belongs to the young. “Leave the future to me,” he said, “I have time.”  And he was right.  Whether it was during our conversations in the Oval Office, walking together through Yad Vashem, or when I presented him with America’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, Shimon always looked to the future.   He was guided by a vision of the human dignity and progress that he knew people of goodwill could advance together.  He brought young people from around the world together because he knew they could carry us closer to our ideals of justice and equality.

Shimon was the essence of Israel itself—the courage of Israel’s fight for independence, the optimism he shared with his wife Sonya as they helped make the desert bloom, and the perseverance that led him to serve his nation in virtually every position in government across the entire life of the State of Israel.   As Americans, we are in his debt because, having worked with every U.S. president since John F. Kennedy, no one did more over so many years as Shimon Peres to build the alliance between our two countries—an unbreakable alliance that today is closer and stronger than it has ever been.

Perhaps because he had seen Israel surmount overwhelming odds, Shimon never gave up on the possibility of peace between Israelis, Palestinians and Israel’s neighbors—not even after the heartbreak of the night in Tel Aviv that took Yitzhak Rabin.  “Dear friends,” he told us during my visit to Israel three years ago, “after everything I have seen in my life, I earned the right to believe that peace is attainable.”  Tonight, I can think of no greater tribute to his life than to renew our commitment to the peace that we know is possible.   Our thoughts are with his children Zvia, Yoni and Chemi, their families and all who loved and admired Shimon Peres, of blessed memory.

A light has gone out, but the hope he gave us will burn forever. Shimon Peres was a soldier for Israel, for the Jewish people, for justice, for peace, and for the belief that we can be true to our best selves - to the very end of our time on Earth, and in the legacy that we leave to others. For the gift of his friendship and the example of his leadership, todah rabah, Shimon.