On Monday, President Obama will bestow medals on 19 people from the arts, public service, academia, and other areas. Best known among the awardees are actress Meryl Streep, singer Stevie Wonder, TV anchor Tom Brokaw, and Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert F. Kennedy.
Six of the medals are being awarded posthumously, including three to civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. The men were murdered in 1964 as they worked on voter education and registration in Mississippi. Seven members of the Ku Klux Klan were convicted in the deaths.
The other recipients are composer Stephen Sondheim, author Isabel Allende, actress Marlo Thomas, Native American activist Suzan Shown Harjo, golfer Charles Sifford, economist Robert Solow, physicist Mildred Dresselhaus, former Rep. Abner Mikva (D) of Illinois, and retiring Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, the longest-serving member of Congress.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom was established by an executive order of President John F. Kennedy on February 22, 1963. Presidents have selected awardees on their own initiative and at the recommendation of the Distinguished Civilian Service Awards Board.
The medal features a gold star with white enamel and a red enamel pentagon behind it, encircled by five gold eagles. In the center is a blue circle with thirteen gold stars.
A handful of Americans have won the Presidential Medal of Freedom more than once. Double recipients include Gen. Colin Powell and John Kenneth Galbraith. The late businessman and diplomat Ellsworth Bunker won the medal twice, both times “with distinction.”
The medal may be awarded “to any person who has made an especially meritorious contribution to (1) the security or national interests of the United States, or (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors,” according to President Kennedy’s executive order.