WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama recognized former President George H.W. Bush and 14 artists, athletes, civil rights activists, humanitarians and others Tuesday with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for contributions to society that he said speak to "who we are as a people."
This year's recipients "reveal the best of who we are and who we aspire to be," Obama said at a White House ceremony.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian honor. It is given in recognition of contributions to U.S. national security, world peace, culture or other significant public or private endeavors. Tuesday's medals were the second set Obama has awarded.
A round of applause went to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. Lewis was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped organize the first sit-ins at lunch counters that refused to serve blacks. In 1965, he led a march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., and was nearly beaten to death along with others in what became known as "Bloody Sunday."
A particularly touching moment occurred during the presentation for Dr. Tom Little, an optometrist who was murdered by the Taliban last August in Afghanistan. His wife, Libby, accepted and Obama rubbed her back as a White House military aide read her husband's medal citation.
The other medal recipients are:
•Â John H. Adams, co-founder of Natural Resources Defense Council
•Â Maya Angelou, an author and poet who wrote and recited one of her works at former President Bill Clinton's inauguration.
• Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway. One of the world's richest men, he is also a philanthropist and a leader of an effort challenging the country's wealthiest people to step up their charitable giving.
• Jasper Johns, an artist whose work has dealt with themes of perception and identity. He is considered a major influence on pop, minimalist and conceptual art.
• Gerda Weissmann Klein, Holocaust survivor and author who founded Citizenship Counts, an organization that teaches students to cherish being American citizens
•Â Yo-Yo Ma, a world renowned cellist and 16-time Grammy award winner who is known for his interpretations of Bach and Beethoven.
• Sylvia Mendez, a civil rights activist of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent
•Â Angela Merkel, the first woman and first East German to serve as chancellor of a unified Germany. She did not attend the ceremony.
•Â Stan Musial, Hall of Fame baseball player who spent 22 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals
•Â Bill Russell, the former captain of the Boston Celtics and first black man to become an NBA head coach.
•Â Jean Kennedy Smith, founder of VSA, a non-profit organization that promotes the artistic talents of people with disabilities
• John J. Sweeney, president emeritus of the AFL-CIO