Talk about being in good company.
President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, considered the highest U.S. civilian honor, to 16 people on Wednesday including a celebrated scientist, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, a gay rights pioneer, and a top leader against apartheid in South Africa.
“There are many honors and privileges bestowed on the occupant of this house, but few mean as much to me as the chance to award America’s highest civilian medal to the recipients that are here today,” Obama said during a ceremony at the White House.
“This is a chance for me — and for the United States of America — to say thank you to some of the finest citizens of this country, and of all countries,” he said.
Honorees included scientist Stephen Hawking, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, deceased gay rights campaigner Harvey Milk, and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu of South Africa.
The honorees were not invited to speak during the ceremony, but one slipped in a few words anyway. Dr. Joseph Medicine Crow – High Bird, wearing a headdress of brightly colored feathers that created a challenge for the president in draping the medal around his neck, moved over to the microphones to declare the he was deeply honored. Obama, smiling, gently maneuvered him away from the podium and back towards his seat.