President Barack Obama and Reverend Joseph Lowery
President Barack Obama and Sidney Poitier
President Barack Obama and Bishop Desmond Tutu
Photo Credits: Rickey Brown for Sentinel
Rickey Brown for Sentinel
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT AT THE MEDAL OF FREEDOM CEREMONY
THE PRESIDENT: There are many honors and privileges bestowed on the occupant of this house, but few mean as much to me as the chance to award America’s highest civilian medal to the recipients that are here today. This is a chance for me–and for the United States of America–to say thank you to some of the finest citizens of this country, and of all countries.
The men and women we honor today have led very different lives and pursued very different careers. They’re pioneers in science and medicine. They’re gifted artists and indomitable athletes. They have made their mark in the courtroom, in the community, and in Congress. And what unites them is a belief–that most–forgive me to those of you who are not Americans–but what we consider to be that most American of beliefs–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.
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. 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.
So, let them stand as an example here in the United States–and around the world–of what we can achieve in our own lives. Let them stand as an example of the difference we can make in the lives of others. Let each of their stories stand as an example of a life well lived.
Born and raised in Jim Crow Alabama, preaching in his blood, the Reverend Joseph Lowery is a giant of the Moses generation of civil rights leaders. It was just King, Lowery, and a few others, huddled in Montgomery, who laid the groundwork for the bus boycott and the movement that was to follow. A founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Lowery was later asked to serve as President. He agreed to serve for one year, but wound up serving, as he puts it, for 20 one-year terms. (Laughter.) Throughout his life, some have called him crazy. But one of my favorite sermons that I heard Dr. Lowery once deliver, he said: There’s good crazy and there’s bad crazy–(laughter)–and sometimes you need a little bit of that good crazy to make the world a better place.
It’s been said that Sidney Poitier does not make movies, he makes milestones–milestones of artistic excellence; milestones of America’s progress. On screen and behind the camera, in films such as The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Uptown Saturday Night, Lilies of the Field–for which he became the first African American to win an Academy Award for Best Actor–Poitier not only entertained, but enlightened, shifting attitudes, broadening hearts, revealing the power of the silver screen to bring us closer together. The child of Bahamian tomato farmers, Poitier once called his driving purpose to make himself a better person. He did–and he made us all a little bit better along the way.
The glint in the eye and the lilt in the voice are familiar to us all. But the signature quality of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, says Nelson Mandela, is a readiness to take unpopular stands without fear. Perhaps that explains what led the Arch, as he’s known, to preach amid tear gas and police dogs, rallying a people against apartheid. And later, when a free South Africa needed a heart big enough to forgive its sins, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was called to serve once more–as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Tribune of the downtrodden, voice of the oppressed, cantor of our conscience, Desmond Tutu possesses that sense of generosity, that spirit of unity, that essence of humanity that South Africans know simply as Ubuntu.
Excerpted: These are the 2009 recipients of the Medal of Freedom. At a moment when cynicism and doubt too often prevail, when our obligations to one another are too often forgotten, when the road ahead can seem too long or hard to tread, these extraordinary men and women–these agents of change–remind us that excellence is not beyond our abilities, that hope lies around the corner, and that justice can still be won in the forgotten corners of this world. They remind us that we each have it within our powers to fulfill dreams, to advance the dreams of others, and to remake the world for our children.
And it is now my distinct and extraordinary honor to ask each of them to come forward to receive their award, as a military aide reads their citation.
Reverend Joseph E. Lowery. (Applause.)
Reverend Joseph E. Lowery has marched through life with faith and purpose, carrying with him the legacy of a movement that touched America’s conscience and changed its history. At the forefront of the major civil rights events of our time–from the Montgomery bus boycott to protests against apartheid–he has served as a tireless beacon for nonviolence and social justice. As a pastor and civil rights advocate, he co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and championed the cause of peace and freedom around the world. The United States proudly honors this outstanding leader.
(The medal is presented.) (Applause.)
Sidney Poitier. (Applause.)
Ambassador and actor, Sidney Poitier has left an indelible mark on American culture. Rising from the tomato farms of the Bahamas, his talent led him to Broadway, Hollywood, and global acclaim. In front of black and white audiences struggling to right the nation’s moral compass, Sidney Poitier brought us the common tragedy of racism, the inspiring possibility of reconciliation, and the simple joys of everyday life. Ultimately, the man would mirror the character, and both would advance the nation’s dialogue on race and respect.
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu. (Applause.)
With unflagging devotion to justice, indomitable optimism, and an unmistakable sense of humor, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Mpilo Tutu has stirred the world’s conscience for decades. As a man of the cloth, he has drawn the respect and admiration of a diverse congregation. He helped lead South Africa through a turning point in modern history, and with an unshakable humility and firm commitment to our common humanity, he helped heal wounds and lay the foundation for a new nation. Desmond Tutu continues to give voice to the voiceless and bring hope to those who thirst for freedom.
(The medal is presented.) (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Before we break up, why don’t we all give an extraordinary round of applause to these remarkable men and women. (Applause.)
Thank you very much for joining us, everyone. Thank you very much.Â