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13 Black Legends Who Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Jul 27, 2022 09:00AM ● By Boitumelo Masihleho
collage of recipients of this year's presidential medal

On July 7, President Joe Biden awarded the presidential Medal of Freedom to 17 Americans The Presidential Medal of Freedom. This is the nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. 

It was established in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy, superseding the Medal of Freedom that was established by President Harry S. Truman in 1945 to honor civilian service during World War II. A recipient himself, President Biden laughed and joked with the new recipients as he honored them and their service to the country.  In light of this prestigious event, here’s a look at some of the wonderful and deserving, and Black legends who have ever received this honor.

Simone Biles

At just 25 years old, Simone Biles has officially become the youngest person ever to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In addition to her athletic prowess, Biles is an advocate for athletes’ mental health and safety, children in the foster care system, and victims of sexual assault. Teasing Biles as he awarded her, President Joe Biden suggested that the nation’s most decorated gymnast in history couldn’t find room to add another piece of hardware to her 32 Olympic and World Championship medals.


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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Harlem native Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the most celebrated athletes and activists of our time. He is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, has won six championships and six Most Valuable Player Honors. Abdul-Jabbar played 20 seasons in the National Basketball Association for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers. He has also been appointed as a US Ambassador in the past and has dedicated much of his time after sports to writing and social activism


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Cicely Tyson

Celebrated actress Cicely Tyson has had a long career where she has graced movie and television screens, as well as Broadway stages. Also born and raised in Harlem, Tyson was first discovered as a model for Ebony Magazine. Her honors include two Emmys and a Tony Award for best leading actress in The Trip to the Bountiful. Tyson received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015.

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Denzel Washington

Denzel Washington was forced to miss getting his award due to a case of Covid-19. The 67-year-old actor was noted for being one of the nation’s most acclaimed dramatists. Washington is the most nominated Black actor in Academy Awards history, with 10 overall nods and two wins for Glory and Training Day. "There's a man who couldn't be here today but wanted to be: Denzel Washington, one of our greatest actors in American history. Academy Awards, Golden Globes, Tony Awards, [and] wide acclaim and admiration from audiences and peers around the world," President Biden said during the ceremony. "He couldn't be here with us today, but I'll be giving him this award at a later date when he's able to get here."


Denzel Washington stars in one of the '8 of the Best Black Romance Movies Through the Decades' :

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Diana Ross

With her 50-plus year career in several facets of the entertainment industry, Diana Ross has opened doors for many to follow in her footsteps. From theater to film, television to fashion, Ross has obtained honors in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as a recipient of the Grammy's Lifetime Achievement Award, and as an Academy Award nominee. She was at the White House in 2007 when she was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.


Michael Jordan 

Michael Jordan is one of the greatest athletes of all time. Jordan played 15 seasons in the NBA for the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards and is currently the principal owner and chairman of the Charlotte Hornets. During his career, he won six championships, five MVP awards and appeared in 14 All-Star games. “MJ is still more than those moments, more than just the best player on the two greatest teams of all time – the Dream Team and the 1996 Chicago Bulls,” former President Obama said. “He’s more than just a logo, more than just an internet meme. He’s more than just a charitable donor or a business owner committed to diversity.

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Photo Credit Getty Images

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Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison, the renowned author and the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities Emeritus at Princeton University, was named by former President Barack Obama a 2012 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1993, Morrison became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature.  In addition to earning the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Beloved, Morrison also became the first Black woman to receive a Nobel Prize in 1993. The president’s statement hails Morrison as “an author who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” Morrison passed away in August 2019 at the age of 88 from complications of pneumonia.

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Fred Gray

Fred David Gray is an American civil rights attorney, preacher, and activist from Alabama. He litigated several major civil rights cases in Alabama, including some, such as Browder v. Gayle, that reached the United States Supreme Court. Once described by Martin Luther King Jr. as “the chief counsel for the protest movement,” Gray has a client list that reads like a Who’s Who of the civil rights era. Referring to him as “one of the most important civil rights attorneys in American history,” Biden marveled that Gray still practices law at the age of 91. The first Black man to serve in the Alabama State legislature since Reconstruction. 


Dr. Maya Angelou

In 2010, President Obama invited Angelou to the White House to present her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Before that, she received a National Medal of Arts from President Clinton in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008. Angelou was an American memoirist, popular poet, and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. Angelou passed away at the age of 88 in May 2014.


Archbishop Desmond Tutu

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu was known for his work as an anti-apartheid and human rights activist. He was Bishop of Johannesburg from 1985 to 1986 and then Archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 to 1996, in both cases being the first black African to hold the position. When he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from former President Barack Obama, he dedicated it to all South Africans who fought for freedom and justice. “I am standing out only because millions of my compatriots are carrying me on their shoulders. The ”extraordinary symbolism” of America’s first African American president presenting the award to ”a former South African township urchin”, was humbling,” he said. Sadly, the Archibishop passed away at the age of 90 in December 2021 from his battle with prostate cancer.

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Katherine Johnson

Former President Obama bestowed the Medal of Freedom, the Nation’s highest civilian honor, to Katherine Johnson—a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) mathematician who exhibited exceptional technical leadership, calculating and verifying trajectories that took the first Americans to space and to the moon. During her more than a three-decade-long career at NASA, she earned a reputation for mastering complex manual calculations, combining her mathematics talent with computer skills to solve problems of an astrophysics nature. Johnson passed away in February 2020 at the amazing age of 101.


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Oprah Winfrey

In 2013, Oprah received a Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama for being one of the world’s most successful broadcast journalists and philanthropists. The President said that the primary message of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which ran for 25 seasons, was always “you can —you can do and you can be and you can grow and it can be better” Winfrey, he pointed out, was living proof of this mantra.

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Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a Liberian politician who served as the 24th President of Liberia from 2006 to 2018. Sirleaf was the first elected female head of state in Africa. Former President George W. Bush awarded her the honor in 2009 and likened the Liberian president to former South African president Nelson Mandela and other former prisoners who he said stood up to tyrannical regimes. “She loves Liberia and she loves all its people. After a cabal seized power and plunged that country into years of upheaval and corruption and civil war, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stood up for the democratic rights of her fellow citizens. She never wavered, even though the consequences were house arrest, foreign exile, death threats, and imprisonment,” he said.


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 Boitumelo Masihleho is a South African digital content creator. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Rhodes University in Journalism and Media Studies and Politics and International Studies. She's an experienced multimedia journalist who is committed to writing balanced, informative and interesting stories on a number of topics. Boitumelo has her own YouTube channel where she shares her love for affordable beauty and lifestyle content. 

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