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US: Obama to give 16 'agents of change' US Medal of Freedom

Fri Jul 31 04:24:11 EST 2009

WASHINGTON, July 30 AFP - President Barack Obama will next month award the highest US civilian honour to 16 "agents of change" including Desmond Tutu, Stephen Hawking and Muhammad Yunus, the White House said on Thursday.

Obama will present the Presidential Medal of Freedom on August 12 to Tutu, a South African anti-apartheid veteran, British physicist Hawking and Yunus, a Bangladeshi micro-financier who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

Other figures tapped to receive the nation's highest civilian honour included six women from sport, entertainment, science and government; a Native American war chief, a civil rights leader, an African-American actor, two US politicians and a doctor.

Harvey Milk, the first openly gay official of a major US city, will receive the award posthumously, along with long-time, self-described "bleeding heart conservative" politician Jack Kemp, who passed away in May.

"These outstanding men and women represent an incredible diversity of backgrounds," Obama said in a statement.

"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."

Hawking, who has overcome the debilitating effects of motor neuron disease to become an internationally recognised theoretical physicist, was hailed by the White House for unlocking "new pathways of discovery" and "inspiring everyday citizens."

In a statement, Hawking said he was "delighted and honoured" to be chosen to receive the award, adding that he was "very much looking forward to travelling to Washington" to meet Obama, whom the physicist called a "remarkable man... whom I admire deeply."

Tutu, a 1984 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, was lauded for leading "a formidable crusade in support of justice and racial reconciliation in South Africa," and Yunus for his pioneering work against poverty.

Yunus founded the Grameen Bank to provide micro-loans to poor people without collateral.

Among other recipients of the Medal of Freedom were Ireland's first woman president Mary Robinson, who left the presidency early to serve as the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, and Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman justice on the US Supreme Court.

US geneticist Janet Davison Rowley, whose studies of chromosome abnormalities in human leukemia and lymphoma have led to dramatically improved survival rates for previously incurable cancers, and Nancy Goodman Brinker, who founded the global breast cancer grassroots organisation Susan G Komen for the Cure in memory of her sister will also receive the coveted award.

Former tennis pro Billie Jean King, who became the first woman commissioner in professional sport after her court career ended; and Latina actress, dancer and singer Chita Rivera rounded out the list of women recipients.

Pedro Jose Greer, an academic and doctor who works extensively with the poor in Miami, Florida; Sidney Poitier, the first African-American to be nominated for and win a Best Actor Academy Award; and the last living Plains Indian war chief, Joseph Medicine Crow, whose books preserve the history and culture of Native Americans, will also receive the award.

Milk was shot to death by a former colleague in 1978 while serving on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The gay rights activist, the White House noted, "is revered nationally and globally as a pioneer of the LGBT civil rights movement for his exceptional leadership and dedication to equal rights."

Senator Edward Kennedy, who has served in the US Senate for nearly 50 years, will take home his Medal of Freedom in recognition of a career dedicated to "fighting for equal opportunity, fairness and justice for all Americans," the White House said.