John Lewis Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

The Georgia lawmaker and civil rights hero gets the nation's highest civilian honor.

By Thoai Lu Feb 16, 2011

Georgia Rep. John Lewis became one of 15 people this year to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom award yesterday, the nation’s highest civilian honor*. Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement, said he was moved to tears when Obama personally informed him of his award. 

"If somebody told me one day I would be standing in the White House, and an African American president presenting me the Medal of Freedom, I would have said, ‘Are you crazy’? Are you out of your mind?" Lewis told reporters, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.   

After initially endorsing Hilary Clinton in 2007, he then threw his support behind then-Senator Obama. Later, Lewis remarked that choosing to support Obama was tougher than participating in his most famous civil rights battle, the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965.  Although Lewis had a close friendship with Bill and Hilary Clinton, he said he had to be on "the right side of history."

Lewis’ political legacy has indeed withstood the test of time. Lewis was elected to Congress in 1986, which makes him the longest-serving Georgian currently in the House.  In the 1960’s he was a chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and protested against segregated lunch counters. He also launched Freedom Rides throughout the South and endured violent beatings by white mobs. In 1963, Lewis stood alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial, making him the last surviving keynote speaker from that unforgettable day.

As the son of southern sharecroppers, Lewis also reflected on his commitment to non-violence. "I didn’t give up, I didn’t give in, I kept the faith, I kept my eyes on the prize. It’s worth every step, every sit-in, every beating, every arrest," he said.

President Obama remarked during the ceremony that he believes Lewis’ story will help parents teach their children courage. Other notable recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award this year were George H. W. Bush, writer Maya Angelou, investor Warren Buffett, and Chancellor Angela Merkel.

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*A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of people who’ve received this honor.