Biden to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 19 politicians, activists, athletes and more

President Joe Biden will honour 19 individuals with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their exemplary contributions

Published - May 03, 2024 04:39 pm IST - Washington

U.S. President Joe Biden. File

U.S. President Joe Biden. File | Photo Credit: AP

Clarence B. Jones says 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?'" Mr. Jones recalled. The caller swore they were serious and was calling with the news that President Joe Biden wanted to recognise Mr. Jones with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honour.

Mr. Jones, 93, will be honoured for his activism during the Civil Rights Movement. He's a lawyer who provided legal counsel to 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.

Mr. Jones is among a diverse group of 19 individuals to be honoured on Friday by the Democratic president for making what the White House said are “exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavours.” The 10 men and nine women hail from the worlds of politics, sports, entertainment, civil rights and LGBTQ+ advocacy, science and religion. Three medals will be awarded posthumously.

“These nineteen Americans built teams, coalitions, movements, organisations, and businesses that shaped America for the better,” the announcement from the White House said. “They are the pinnacle of leadership in their fields. They consistently demonstrated over their careers the power of community, hard work, and science.” Seven politicians are among the recipients: former New York mayor and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, climate activist and former Vice President Al Gore, Mr. Biden's former climate envoy John Kerry, former Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who died in 2013, and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Mr. Clyburn's endorsement of his long-time friend Mr. Biden in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary is credited with helping Mr. Biden score a thundering win in South Carolina that helped power him to his party's nomination and ultimately the White House. Mr. Bloomberg mounted a short-lived bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

In addition to representing North Carolina in the Senate, Ms. Dole, who is a Republican, also served as transportation secretary and labour secretary and was president of the American Red Cross. She currently leads a foundation supporting military caregivers.

Ms. Pelosi is the first and only woman ever elected to the speaker's post, putting her second in the line of succession to the presidency.

Medgar Evers will receive posthumous recognition for his work more than six decades ago fighting segregation in Mississippi in the 1960s as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (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.

Michelle Yeoh made history last year by becoming the first Asian woman to win an Academy Award for best actress for her performance in “ Everything, Everywhere All at Once.” Jim Thorpe, who died in 1953, was the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States.

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 he was beaten and tied to a fence.

Mr. Jones said he felt “very touched” after he digested what the caller had said.

“I'm 93 years old with some health challenges, but I woke up this morning thanks to the grace of God,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview May 2. “I'm looking forward to whatever the White House would like for me to do.”

The other medal recipients are:

— Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit Catholic priest who founded and runs Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention and rehabilitation program.

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

— Katie Ledecky, the most decorated female swimmer in history.

— Opal Lee, an activist who is best known for pushing to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Mr. Biden did so in 2021.

— Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman in space and the second female director of NASA's Johnson Space Centre.

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

— Teresa Romero, president of the United Farm Workers and the first Hispanic woman to lead a national union in the U.S. The union has endorsed Mr. Biden's reelection bid and backed him in 2020.

In 2022, Mr. 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 Gabby Giffords.

Mr. Biden also knows how it feels to receive the medal. As president, Barack Obama presented Mr. Biden, his vice president, with the medal a week before their administration ended in 2017.

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