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Medal of Freedom Recipients Honored at White House

August 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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President Barack Obama awarded 16 people with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Wednesday. Judy Woodruff offers a look at the ceremony.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, physicist Stephen Hawking, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and tennis legend Billie Jean King, 4 of the 16 diverse recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom presented today at the White House.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Oscar-winning actor Sidney Poitier received the honor.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joe Medicine Crow is the last living Plains Indian war chief. He also fought in World War II.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Wearing war paint beneath his uniform and a sacred feather beneath his helmet, Joseph Medicine Crow completed the four battlefield deeds that made him the last Crow war chief. Historian, educator and patriot, a good man, a bacheitche in Crow, Dr. Medicine Crow’s life reflects not only the warrior spirit of the Crow people, but America’s highest ideals.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Microlending pioneer Muhammad Yunus was among the four non-Americans to receive the honor.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Determined to help, Muhammad Yunus left the classroom for a village and discovered that just $27 would free dozens of artisans, vendors and rickshaw pullers from debt. Offering himself as a guarantor, he withdrew a loan, paid off their debts, and founded Grameen Bank, a bank that has dispersed over $8 billion, lifting millions of people from poverty with microloans. Muhammad Yunus was just trying to help a village, but he somehow managed to change the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sen. Ted Kennedy, who’s battling brain cancer, also received the medal. His daughter, Kara, accepted in his absence.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: There’s a story Ted Kennedy sometimes tells. It’s about a boy who sees an old man tossing starfish stranded by a receding tide back into the sea. “There are so many,” asks the boy. “What difference can your efforts possibly make?” The old man studies the starfish in his hand and tosses it to safety, saying, “It makes a difference to that one.” For nearly half a century, Ted Kennedy has been walking that beach.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There were also two posthumous awards for quarterback-turned-politician, Representative Jack Kemp of New York, and Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay men to be elected to public office in the United States.