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16 Amazing Americans Awarded The Presidential Medal Of Freedom

President Obama awarded the nation's highest honor Wednesday to 16 Americans from diverse fields.

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President Obama presented Wednesday the nation's highest accolade, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to 16 Americans involved in diverse fields, from science, to journalism, to sports.

"This year is special because it is the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy establishing this award," Obama said at the ceremony in the White House's East Room.

"Today, we salute fierce competitors who became true champions."

Friday also marks the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's death. After the Medals were presented to the recipients, President Clinton and the Obamas visited an eternal flame that marks JFK's gravesite at the Arlington National Cemetery.

The men and women honored today are truly remarkable achievers, from civil rights leaders to political powerhouses. Here they are:


3. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton

Larry Downing / Reuters

The President thanked Clinton for his "lifesaving work around the world" and for giving him advice "on and off the golf course."

Obama also jokingly thanked Clinton for his patience during former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's travels all around the world.

4. Gloria Steinem

Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press / MCT

Like Oprah, Steinem bridges the gap between journalism and human rights, and was a pioneer for women and feminism.

"Gloria Steinem changed how women thought about themselves," said President Obama.

5. Sally Ride

Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press / MCT

The youngest person and first American woman in space, Sally Ride, died in July, 2012, but her life partner, Tam O'Shaughnessy, accepted the award today on her behalf.

“Young girls need to see role models, she said. You can't be what you can't see,” Obama said at the ceremony. “Today our daughters, including Malia and Sasha, can set their sights a little bit higher because Sally Ride showed them the way.”


6. Ben Bradlee

Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press / MCT

Ben Bradlee, former Executive Editor of the Washington Post, accepted a Medal of Freedom for his investigative jouranlism. Under Bradlee, the Post exposed Nixon and the Watergate scandal.

7. Ernie Banks

Larry Downing / Reuters

Ernie Banks played for the Chicago Cubs for 19 years, and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977.

The LA Times writes:

Known as “Mr. Cub,” his enthusiasm was so contagious that fans often overlooked his team’s lackluster performance. His cry, “Let’s play two!” was a level of joy and optimism that left fans in awe and managers bathed in their own envy.

8. Daniel K. Inouye

Inouye, who died in December 2012, was the first Japanese American to serve in Congress, representing Hawaii since statehood, and he later became a senator. He also received a Medal of Honor for his service in World War II.

"As the second-longest serving senator in American history, he showed a generation of young people -- including one kid with a funny name growing up in Hawaii who noticed that there was somebody... in Washington that didn't look like everybody else, which meant maybe I had a chance to do something important, too."

9. Dean Smith

Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press / MCT

Linnea Smith, wife of former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, accepted an award for her husband. Smith established modern college basketball, and helped develop Michael Jordan into arguably the best player in history.

10. Richard Lugar

Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press / MCT

Former Senator Richard Lugar was honored for his contributions to public policy, and particularly foreign affairs. Much of Lugar's work in the Senate was focused on dismantling nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons around the world, and he co-sponsored his most notable piece of legislation with Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn: The Nunn-Lugar Act. He was also the longest-serving Senator in Indiana's history.


12. Mario Molina

Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press / MCT

Chemist and environmental scientist Mario Molina shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work in elucidating the threat to the Earth's ozone layer of chlorofluorocarbon gases (or CFCs). He was also the first Mexican-born citizen to ever receive a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

13. Loretta Lynn

Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press / MCT

Country music legend Loretta Lynn is well known for her No. 1 country hit "the Coal Miner's Daughter" that launched her bestselling 1976 autobiography and the 1980 Academy Award-winning biopic.

14. Arturo Sandoval

Larry Downing / Reuters

Jazz trumpeter, pianist, and composer Arturo Sandoval was born in Cuba and grew up under Fidel Castro's communist regime.

"What I like the most is the last part of the medal — freedom," he said, "because I always say that 'no freedom, no life.'"

Sandoval has won nine Grammys. The artist told CBS News that he started playing music in 1961 and "never stopped."

15. Bayard Rustin

AP Photo/A. Camerano

The late Bayard Rustin rose to fame as a civil rights leader, and the organizer for the 1963 march on Washington. He was also openly gay in an era when same-sex relations were widely stigmatized in American society, and was reportedly abused from opponents as well as other civil rights leaders.

16. Cordy Tindell "C.T." Vivian

Larry Downing / Reuters

Civil rights leader Cordy Tindell "C.T." Vivian is a civil rights leader, minister, and author who was a friend to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and participated in Freedom Rides and sit-ins across our country. He founded a number of civil rights organizations, including Vision, the National Anti-Klan Network, and the Center for Democratic Renewal.

“The Rev. C.T. Vivian was a stalwart activist on the march toward racial equality. Whether at a lunch counter, on a Freedom Ride, or behind the bars of a prison cell, he was unafraid to take bold action in the face of fierce resistance,” said President Obama.

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