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Biden awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 19 politicians, activists, athletes and others

Recipients include slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers; actor Michelle Yeoh, the first Asian woman to win an Academy Award for best actress; and the late Jim Thorpe, the first Native American to win Olympic gold for the United States.
President Joe Biden awards the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to former New York City Michael Bloomberg.
Posted at 6:18 PM, May 03, 2024

President Joe Biden bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on 19 people on Friday, including civil rights icons such as the late Medgar Evers, political leaders such as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the actor Michelle Yeoh.

President Biden said at the White House that the award is “the nation's highest civilian honor” and that this year's recipients are “incredible people whose relentless curiosity, inventiveness, ingenuity and hope have kept faith in a better tomorrow.”

Clarence B. Jones, one of the recipients, said in an interview that he thought a prankster was on the line when he answered the telephone and heard the person on the other end say they were calling from the White House.

“I said, ‘Is this a joke or is this serious?’" Jones recalled. The caller swore they were serious and was calling with the news that President Biden wanted to recognize Jones with the medal.

Jones, 93, was honored for his activism during the Civil Rights Movement. He's a lawyer who provided legal counsel to Martin Luther King Jr. and helped write the opening paragraphs of the "I Have a Dream" speech that King delivered at the Lincoln Memorial at the 1963 March on Washington.

The White House said the recipients are “exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors.”

The 10 men and nine women hail from the worlds of politics, sports, entertainment, civil rights and LGBTQ+ advocacy, science and religion. Three medals were awarded posthumously.

Seven politicians were among the recipients: former New York mayor and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, climate activist and former Vice President Al Gore, President Biden's former climate envoy John Kerry, former Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who died in 2013, and Pelosi, the Democratic congresswoman from California.

President Biden in his remarks acknowledged that Clyburn's endorsement in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary helped him score a thundering win in South Carolina, powering him to his party's nomination and ultimately the White House. Bloomberg mounted a short-lived bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

In addition to representing North Carolina in the Senate, Dole, who is a Republican, also served as transportation secretary and labor secretary and was president of the American Red Cross. She currently leads a foundation supporting military caregivers.

Pelosi is the first and only woman ever elected to the speaker's post, putting her second in the line of succession to the presidency.

Evers received posthumous recognition for his work more than six decades ago fighting segregation in Mississippi in the 1960s as the NAACP's first field officer in the state. He was 37 when he was fatally shot in the driveway of his home in June 1963.

Yeoh made history last year by becoming the first Asian woman to win an Academy Award for best actress for her performance in “ Everything, Everywhere All at Once.”

Jim Thorpe, who died in 1953, was the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States.

Judy Shepard co-founded the Matthew Shepard Foundation, named after her son, a gay 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who died in 1998 after he was beaten and tied to a fence.

Jones said he felt “very touched” after he digested what the caller had said.

“I'm 93 years old with some health challenges, but I woke up this morning thanks to the grace of God,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Thursday. “I'm looking forward to whatever the White House would like for me to do.”

The other medal recipients were:

— Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit Catholic priest who founded and runs Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention and rehabilitation program.

— Phil Donahue, a journalist and former daytime TV talk-show host.

— Katie Ledecky, the most decorated female swimmer in history.

— Opal Lee, an activist who is best known for pushing to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. President Biden did so in 2021.

— Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman in space and the second female director of NASA's Johnson Space Center.

— Jane Rigby, an astronomer who is chief scientist of the world's most powerful telescope. She grew up in Delaware, President Biden's home state.

— Teresa Romero, president of the United Farm Workers and the first Hispanic woman to lead a national union in the U.S. The union has endorsed President Biden's reelection bid and backed him in 2020.

In 2022, President Biden presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 17 people, including gymnast Simone Biles, the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and gun-control advocate Gabby Giffords.

President Biden also knows how it feels to receive the medal. As president, Barack Obama president Biden, his vice president, with the medal a week before their administration ended in 2017.