A civil rights giant, a time-stopping poet, and former all-star basketball player for the Celtics received one of the highest civilian honors in the nation—the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Congressman John Lewis, Maya Angelou, and Bill Russell were three of 12 recipients for the award this year given by President Barack Obama. Former U.S. president George H.W. Bush and philanthropic investor Warren Buffett received the honor as well.
According to the President, the honorees represented the ideals of courage and leadership that are invaluable to improving and serving the nation.
“These outstanding honorees come from a broad range of backgrounds and they’ve excelled in a broad range of fields, but all of them have lived extraordinary lives that have inspired us, enriched our culture, and made our country and our world a better place. I look forward to awarding them this honor,” Obama said in a statement.
Included below is a brief bio for each of the three recipients. To read an entry for all the recipients, please visit BlackVoices.com.
Congressman John Lewis
John Lewis is an American hero and a giant of the Civil Rights Movement. He served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), helped to organize the first lunch-counter sit-in in 1959 at the age of 19, and was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. In May 1961, he participated in the initial Freedom Ride, during which he endured violent attacks in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and Montgomery, Alabama. In 1964, he helped to coordinate the Mississippi Freedom Project, and, in 1965, he led the Selma-to-Montgomery march to petition for voting rights where marchers were brutally confronted in an incident that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Eight days later, President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress, condemned the violence in Selma, and called for passage of the Voting Rights Act, which was enacted within months. Since 1987, John Lewis has continued his service to the nation as the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th District, which encompasses all of Atlanta.
Dr. Maya Angelou is a prominent and celebrated author, poet, educator, producer, actress, filmmaker, and civil rights activist, who is currently the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. She has served on two presidential committees, and was awarded the Presidential Medal for the Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008.
Bill Russell is the former Boston Celtics’ Captain who almost single-handedly redefined the game of basketball. Russell led the Celtics to a virtually unparalleled string of eleven championships in thirteen years and was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player five times. The first African-American to coach in the NBA—indeed he was the first to coach a major sport at the professional level in the United States—Bill Russell is also an impassioned advocate of human rights. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and has been a consistent advocate of equality.