“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
For Refinery29’s celebration of Black History Month we put together a list of Black men and women you ought to know. Their legacy in civil rights, feminism, and LGBTQ equality lives on today.
Bayard Rustin — A leading Black figure in the civil rights movement and advisor to Martin Luther King, he was the architect of the 1963 March on Washington and was heavily involved in the first Freedom Rides. He was also gay and a registered communist who went to jail for his sexual orientation. Although widely heralded, he was attacked even by fellow activists for his faith in nonviolence, unapologetic queerness, and attention to income equality. President Obama honored Rustin posthumously with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
Combaheee River Collective — A seminal Black lesbian feminist group active from 1974-1980. Although officially short lived, its influence has been major. The group is best known for writing the Combaheee River Collective Statement, an important document in promoting the idea that social change must be intersectional — and that Black women’s needs were not being met by mainstream white feminism and therefore must strike out on their own. Members of the collective included Audre Lorde and…Chirlane McCray, now First Lady of New York City and author of the landmark essay “I Am a Lesbian,” published in Essence in 1979.
John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and Peter Norman — The winners of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics 200 Meter Sprint. In one of the proudest and most political moments of sports history, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their leather-gloved fists in the Black Power salute. They wore black socks without shoes to represent black poverty and a scarf and necklace to symbolize “those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage.”
We also include in our list Peter Norman, the white Australian silver medalist from that ceremony, to commemorate his solidarity with the two Black athletes. White people are more than indebted to black history, and Norman is an excellent example of a white ally. Although he didn’t perform the black power salute, he publicly supported the duo without regard to personal safety or retribution. Norman was penalized for his alliance with Carlos and Smith and was never again allowed to compete in any Olympics despite repeatedly qualifying. Largely forgotten and barred from major sporting events, he became a gym teacher and worked at a butcher shop. At his funeral in 2006, John Carlos and Tommie Smith were his pallbearers.
The Friendship Nine — This group of nine Black students from Friendship Junior College willingly went to jail without bail in 1961 after staging a sit-in at McCrory’s lunch counter in Rock Hill, South Carolina. They pioneered the civil rights strategy “Jail, No Bail,” which placed the financial burden for racist incarceration back on the state. They’re appreciated today for their bravery and strategic ingenuity. In 2015 their conviction was finally overturned and prosecutor Kevin Brackett personally apologized to the eight living members of the group.
Barbara Jordan — A lawyer and politician, Barbara Jordan was the first Black woman elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction, the first southern Black woman to be elected as a US Senator, and the first Black woman to deliver a keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. Her keynote address is widely considered the greatest of all time, aided by her charismatic and eloquent public speaking skills. She is also remembered as one of the leaders of the impeachment of Richard Nixon. We chose the above quote to illustrate her unique punchy sense of humor.
Pauli Murray — This civil rights activist, feminist, and poet was a hugely successful lawyer who is also recognized as the first Black female Episcopal priest. Like many figures on this list, Murray was acutely aware of the complex relationship between race and gender, and referred to sexism as “Jane Crow,” comparing midcentury treatment of women to that of African Americans in the South. Although she graduated from Howard University first in her class, she was barred from enrolling as a postgraduate at Harvard because she was a woman. Instead, in 1965 she became the first African American to receive a JSD from Yale Law. Once armed with a law degree she became a formidable force in advancing feminist and civil rights. She is a cofounder of the National Organization for Women (NOW). She also identified as having an “inverted sex instinct,” which she used instead of “homosexual” to describe her complicated gender identity and lifelong attraction to women.
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.
President Obama today awarded Vice President Joe Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom with distinction, which is an honor only three other people have been given over the last 30 years. Then Biden gave Obama his highest honor, double finger guns with a wink.
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.
(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.”
Two color guards and color bearers of the Japanese-American 100th Battalion, 442d Combat Team, stand at attention, while their citations are read. They are standing on ground in the Bruyères area, France, where many of their comrades fell. November 12 1944 (Bruyères is a commune in the Vosges department in Lorraine in northeastern France)
Through a series of costly battles—first in Italy, then in France—the 442nd Regimental Combat Team would become the most highly decorated unit of its size and length of service in the history of the U.S. Army, receiving an unprecedented 8 Presidential Unit Citations, 21 Medals of Honor, and 9,486 Purple Hearts.
The 4,000 men of the team who first went into action in 1943 had to be replaced three and a half times to make up for those who were killed, wounded, and missing in action. They helped win Japanese Americans’ personal battle as well, proving that their loyalty to the United States was beyond question. On July 15, 1946, the survivors of the 442nd marched down Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C., becoming the first military unit returning from the war to be reviewed by President Harry S. Truman. “You fought not only the enemy,” President Truman told them that day, “you fought prejudice, and you have won.”
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 (✗)
Top: USS Barb off Mare Island Naval Shipyard, 29 January 1944. Bottom: Battle flag of USS Barb.
USS Barb SS-220
USS Barb, a Gato-class fleet submarine, was one of the most outstanding submarines of the war. Between March 1944 and August 1945, she conducted seven war patrols in the Pacific, and was officially credited with sinking 17 Japanese vessels totaling 96,628 tons, including aircraft carrier Unyo.
11th War Patrol
Her eleventh war patrol began on 19 December 1944. On 22-23 January 1945, USS Barb attacked a 30-ship convoy at anchor in Namkwan Harbor, China. In the dangerously shallow waters of the harbor she launched her torpedoes at the convoy, then spent a whole hour retiring at high speed on the surface through uncharted and heavily mined waters full of obstacles in the form of rocks. In recognition of this remarkable war patrol,
Commander Eugene B. Fluckey, who was in command of USS Barb from the seventh to the last war patrol, was awarded the Medal of Honor, and his submarine received the Presidential Unit Citation.
12th War Patrol
After her eleventh war patrol, USS Barb returned to the US for an overhaul. 5-inch rocket launchers were installed upon Commander Fluckey’s request. Her twelve and final war patrol began on 8 June 1945. For the first time ever in US naval history, a submarine successfully employed rockets - USS Barb fired her 5-inch rockets at four Japanese towns. She then bombarded the town of Kaihyo To using her deck gun, destroying roughly 60% of the town.
During the night of 22-23 July 1945, she landed a party of eight of her crew on the shores of Karafuto, Japan. Using an explosive charge they destroyed a train. This was the first and only time a land battle, albeit a small one, was waged on the soil of the Japanese Home Islands.
Born in Virginia in 1912, Dorothy Height was a civil rights and women’s rights activist focused primarily on improving the circumstances of and opportunities for African-American women. She was a leader in addressing the rights of both women and African Americans as the president of the National Council of Negro Women. In the 1990s, she drew young people into her cause in the war against drugs, illiteracy and unemployment. The numerous honors bestowed upon her include the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1994) and the Congressional Gold Medal (2004). She died on April 20, 2010, in Washington, D.C.
“I have been in the proximity of, and threatened by, the Klan; I have been called everything people of color are called; I have been denied admission because of a quota. I’ve had all of that, but I’ve also learned that getting bitter is not the way."—Dorothy Height
Happy 69th anniversary, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter!
After growing up near each other in Plains, Georgia, Jimmy and Rosalynn first started dating while he was serving at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. After their first date, Jimmy stated plainly, “She’s the girl I want to marry.“
The future President and First Lady of the United States were married a year later, on July 7, 1946, in a ceremony in Plains. Throughout their lives, the pair has worked together in politics and championing human rights, working closely with the Carter Center, which they co-founded in 1982, next to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. In 1999, they were both awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor.
Images from the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, via ourpresidents: