Actress Meryl Streep, singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder and the three civil rights workers murdered 50 years ago for attempting to register Mississippi blacks to vote were among the 19 people honored by President Obama with the Medal of Freedom Monday at a White House ceremony Monday.
Mr. Obama bestowed the nation’s highest civilian award to civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, “freedom riders” who were murdered as they worked on voter education and registration in Mississippi. Surviving family members accepted the medals on their behalf at the event in the East Room.
Mr. Obama said the three young men, two white and one black, “could not have known the impact they would have on the civil rights movement.” Outrage over their deaths contributed to Congress passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“In that Freedom Summer, these three Americans refused to sit on the sidelines,” he said.
Seven members of the Ku Klux Klan were convicted in the deaths. Mr. Obama noted that the “lead perpetrator,” Edgar Ray Killen, wasn’t convicted until 2005.
The president also honored Charles Sifford, the first black golfer to break into the ranks of the Professional Golfers’ Association in the 1950s. Mr. Obama said Mr. Sifford was subjected to racial abuse and harassment as he integrated the professional tour, including incidents when “folks kicked his ball into the rough.”
“My ball’s always in the rough,” Mr. Obama said to laughter.
Of the Academy Award-winning Ms. Streep, the president said, “I love her. Her husband knows I love her. Michelle knows I love her. There’s nothing that either of them can do about it. Meryl is truly one of America’s leading ladies.”
Mr. Wonder was introduced to the White House audience by his legal name, Stevland Morris. The president said the singer’s 1972 album “Talking Book,” with songs such as “Superstition” and “You are the Sunshine of my Life,” was “the first album I ever bought with my own money.”
“I was 10 years old, maybe 11 — with my own cash,” the president said. “I didn’t have a lot of it. And that thing got so worn out … Young people, you won’t remember this, but they had albums.”
Longtime NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw was honored, along with Ethel Kennedy, widow of the late Robert F. Kennedy. Mrs. Kennedy was honored for her longtime advocacy for social justice, human rights, environmental protection, and poverty reduction.
Famed Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim wasn’t able to attend the ceremony, and will receive his award when Mr. Obama next holds the event in 2015.
Others receiving the award included actress Marlo Thomas; 88-year-old Rep. John Dingell, Michigan Democrat who is the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history; author Isabel Allende; Native American author and activist Suzan Harjo; former Rep. Abner Mikva of Illinois, who also served as White House counsel to President Clinton; MIT economist Robert Solow; physicist Mildred Dresselhaus; and posthumous awards for choreographer Alvin Ailey, former Hawaii Rep. Patsy Mink and former California Rep. Edward Roybal, founder of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.