President Barack Obama awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor to 16 “agents of change” on Wednesday, highlighting their accomplishments as examples of the heights a person can reach and the difference they can make in the lives of others. “What unites them is a belief … that our lives are what we make of them, that no barriers of race, gender or physical infirmity can restrain the human spirit, and that the truest test of a person’s life is what we do for one another,” Obama said at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, overflowing with guests as well as White House aides who came to glimpse the celebrities in their midst.
“The recipients of the Medal of Freedom did not set out to win this or any other award. They did not set out in pursuit of glory or fame or riches,” the president continued. “Rather they set out, guided by passion, committed to hard work, aided by persistence, often with few advantages but the gifts, grace and good name God gave them.”
Among the recipients, which included tennis legend Billie Jean King, Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawkins, Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, were three Caribbean-Americans: film star Sidney Poitier, Dr. Pedro José Greer Jr., and actress and dancer Chita Rivera.
Sidney Poitier grew up with his family on remote Cat Island, in the Bahamas. An actor, film director, author, and diplomat, he became the first black man to win and Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Lililes of the Field in 1963.
Dr. Pedro Jose Greer Jr., born in Miami of Cuban parents, is assistant dean of academic affairs at Florida International University School of Medicine and founder of the Camillus Health Concern, which treats thousands of homeless patients annually.
Chita Rivera, the Puerto Rican-American actor, singer, dancer and winner of two Tony awards, became the first Hispanic to receive a Kennedy Center Honors Award in 2002.
President Harry S. Truman established the Medal of Freedom in 1945 to recognize civilians for their efforts during World War II. President John F. Kennedy reinstated the medal in 1963 to honor distinguished service.