Poitier Awarded Medal of Freedom

15 others honored, including Ted Kennedy, Desmond Tutu, Harvey Milk, Sandra Day O’Connor, Stephen Hawking.

Last Updated: August 13, 2009 @ 10:30 AM

President Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 16 people at the White House on Wednesday, among them the first African American to win a Best Actor Oscar, Sidney Poitier.

Calling Poitier — who won a Best Actor Oscar for 1963’s "Lillies of the Field" and a nomination for 1959’s "The Defiant Ones" — an "ambassador and actor," the president in a statement said he "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," said the president.

Among others recognized by Obama were physicist Stephen Hawking, Sen. Ted Kennedy, Billie Jean King, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the late Harvey Milk, Bishop Desmond Tutu and actress/singer/dancer Chita Rivera.

"These outstanding men and women represent an incredible diversity of backgrounds," Obama said. "Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way."

Obama described Rivera as having "captured America’s imagination with her magnetic presence and radiant voice."

Over a career that has spanned a half-century, Rivera — who gained fame as Anita in the Broadway version of "West Side Story" — has received two Tony Awards, six additional Tony nominations and the Kennedy Center Honors Award. 

The full list of recipients:

Nancy Goodman Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure
Pedro José Greer Jr., founder of the Camillus Health Concern, St. John Bosco Clinic
Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist
Jack Kemp, professional football player, Republican Vice President Nominee in 1996
Sen. Edward Kennedy, leading health-care advocate
Billie Jean King, acclaimed professional tennis player
Reverend Joseph Lowery, civil rights movement leader
Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow, last living Plains Indian war chief
Harvey Milk, first openly gay elected official
Sandra Day O’Connor, first female U.S. Supreme Court justice
Sidney Poitier, first African-American to win a Best Actor Academy Award
Chita Rivera, first Hispanic recipient of Kennedy Center Honor
Mary Robinson, first female President of Ireland
Janet Davidson Rowley, geneticist
Desmond Tutu, anti-Apartheid activist, Nobel Peace Prize recipient
Muhammad Yunus, anti-poverty leader, Nobel Peace Prize recipient
 

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