Award-winning songwriter Stevie Wonder, Choreographer Alvin Ailey, and professional golfer Charles Sifford are three African American honorees among nineteen named recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. They join a distinguished list of past recipients such as Jackie Robinson, Sidney Poitier, Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Bayard Rustin, and Dorothy Heights, among others.
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. The awards will be presented at the White House by President Barack Obama on November 24.
“I look forward to presenting these nineteen bold, inspiring Americans with our Nation’s highest civilian honor. From activists who fought for change to artists who explored the furthest reaches of our imagination; from scientists who kept America on the cutting edge to public servants who help write new chapters in our American story, these citizens have made extraordinary contributions to our country and the world,” President Obama said in a statement.
A name that might not be familiar to most is Charles Sifford. Before Tiger Woods was born, Sifford was breaking ground as a professional golfer,m, helping to desegregate the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) despite harassment and death threats. He started his life on the links as a caddy, and though he was formally excluded from the PGA for much of his career because of racial discrimination, he won six National Negro Opens. In 1960, he won his challenge over the PGA’s “Caucasian only” membership policy. He went on to win official PGA events and the PGA Seniors’ Championship. He was inducted in the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004.
The late choreographer Alvin Ailey is being honored for having founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which is renowned for its inspiring performances in 71 countries on 6 continents since 1958. Ailey’s work was groundbreaking in its exploration of the African American experience and the enrichment of the modern dance tradition, including his beloved American masterpiece Revelations. The Ailey organization, based in New York City, carries on his pioneering legacy with performances, training, educational, and community programs for people of all backgrounds.
Also being honored posthumous are Freedom Riders James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, who were civil rights activists and participants in “Freedom Summer,” an historic voter registration drive in 1964. They joined hundreds of others working to register black voters in Mississippi, but were murdered at the outset of Freedom Summer. Their deaths shocked the nation and their efforts helped to inspire many of the landmark civil rights advancements that followed.
The other recipients include: Isabel Allende, acclaimed author of 21 books; American journalist and NBC News Correspondent Tom Brokaw; prominent physicist Mildred Dresselhaus is one of the most prominent physicists, materials scientists, and electrical engineers of her generation; Michigan Congressman John Dingell; Ethel Kennedy, who in realizing her husband’s dream founded the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights; Suzan Harjo, writer, curator, and activist for Native people; Abner Mikva, a former five-term Congressman from Illinois and Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit; Hawaii Congresswoman Patsy Takemoto Mink; late Edward R. Roybal, first Mexican-American to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from California and founder of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; economist Robert Solow; theater composer Stephen Sondheim; Academy Award winning actress Meryl Streep; and, author and actress Marlo Thomas.