Obama awards Presidential Medal of Freedom to 19 people. Who won?

Actress Meryl Streep, singer Stevie Wonder, and RFK widow Ethel Kennedy are among the recipients. President Obama is also granting awards posthumously to three civil rights workers slain in Mississippi in 1964. 

Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Flowers top the memorial marker for Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, civil rights workers who were killed in the "Mississippi Burning" case of 1964, outside the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Miss., following a June 15 commemorative service in their honor. The men will be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Monday, but the honor is not sitting well with some of their relatives.

Being president can be a thankless job, but one of the happier tasks has to be awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor.

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.

Also winning posthumous awards: choreographer Alvin Ailey, Rep. Patsy Mink (D) of Hawaii, and Rep. Edward Roybal (D) of California, who founded the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

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.

Recipients need not be US citizens. President George H. W. Bush awarded the medal to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1991. 

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