Rev. Joseph Lowery
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Medal of Freedom Recipients
They are lauded as agents of change who lived to share some of the changes they helped to bring about.
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Sentinel Assistant Managing Editor
One of the ceremonial duties of the president is awarding the Medal of Freedom to individuals who have made significant contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private. Three Black men have been selected among the 16 recipients named in the 2009 line-up: Sidney Poitier, Rev. Joseph Lowery and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And what a line-up it is.
Sidney Poitier’s accomplishments are as legendary as the man himself as an artist, (actor of stage and screen), a director, an author, a diplomat and an extraordinary human being. He has blazed trails and broken down barriers, not only as the first Black man to win an Academy Award, but also as a genuine example for generations of actors and actresses of all races, genders and ethnicities throughout the world. In addition to his acting/directing career, Poitier has been the Bahamian ambassador to Japan; the author of several books; and role model for millions. He has received numerous awards including the AFI and SAG Lifetime Achievement Awards, the NAACP Image Award and the Kennedy Center Honors.
Rev. Joseph Lowery, a civil rights pioneer, reverberated into the consciousness of the masses when he gave the benediction at President Obama’s inauguration an said in part, “…Black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man and when white will embrace what is right.” A minister in the United Methodist Church and leader in the American civil rights movement, Rev. Lowery co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was its president after Dr. King was killed. He is a man with great standing and has worked diligently on behalf of the oppressed masses. In 2004, Rev. Lowery was honored at the “International Civil Rights Walk of Fame” at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, located in Atlanta, Georgia which was created to give recognition to those courageous soldiers of justice who sacrificed and struggled to make equality a reality for all.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, When Archbishop Tutu’s anti-apartheid activities in South Africa were compared with Dr. King’s work in the United States, he said, “There is a difference. King was fighting to get America to obey the law (the Constitutional guarantee that all men are created equal). In South Africa, the White government was obeying the law – apartheid was the law – I was trying to get them to change the law.” His passion against apartheid was fueled by his first hand knowledge and experience at the hands of White South Africa’s brutal history and oppression against its non-White citizens for centuries. He grew up in an atmosphere of tolerance and sympathy, and that served him well in his professional capacity as an activist-clergyman. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 and in his acceptance speech, he expressed the pain and sufferings of his Black countrymen this way, “Once a Zambian and a South African were talking. The Zambian boasted about their Minister of Naval Affairs. The South African asked, ‘But you have no navy, no access to the sea. How can you have a Minister of Naval Affairs?’ The Zambian retorted, ‘Well, in South Africa you have a Minister of Justice, don’t you?’ ……. There is no peace and there is no justice.”
In announcing the awards President Obama said, “These outstanding men and women represent an incredible diversity of backgrounds. Their tremendous accomplishments span fields from science to sports, from fine arts to foreign affairs. Yet they share one overarching trait: Each has been an agent of change. Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way.”
The Medal of Freedom is usually awarded annually to a distinguished individual or group of individuals by the President of the United States. It is the highest civilian award in the country and is equivalent to the Congressional Medal of Honor. The award is not limited to United States citizens, and while it is a civilian award, it can also be awarded to military personnel and worn on the uniform.
President Obama will present the awards at a ceremony on Wednesday, August 12.