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Washington D.C. — President Obama on Tuesday honored Civil Rights icon John Lewis, poet and activist Maya Angelou, NBA Hall of Fame member Bill Russell and twelve others with the 2010 Medal of Freedom honor.

In a ceremony held in the White House, Obama relished the opportunity to ‘meet with and honor some of the most extraordinary people in America.’

“When you look at the men and women here today, it shows you who we are,” said Obama. “We aren’t a country just about the men and women we produce, but those men and women we also honor.”

Unbossed and Unbought: Click here for a Black History Month tribute to Shirley Chisholm!

The Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor. It is presented to those who have made important contributions in public and private endeavors for the U.S. The medal was created by President Harry S. Truman to honor civilian service in World War II.

During the ceremony, Obama revealed how his mother admired Maya Angelou so much she named his sister after her. The president also spoke about the legendary Congressman John Lewis who had a reception later that evening with the likes of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Congressman James Clyburn, and Senator Harry Reid honoring him.

“Time and time again Congressman Lewis almost lost his life so we can enjoy ours today,” said Obama. “We aspire to be a more just, equal, perfect union when we give an honor like this to Congressman Lewis.”

Lewis, who was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in 1963 and almost lost his life battling for equal rights during the civil rights era,  spoke about what he’s witnessed in all his time serving his country.

“I am honored to be receiving this award. It’s a testament to all the work we have done and the change that we have all experienced,” said Lewis. “If you don’t believe there’s been change in this country, I invite you to walk in my shoes.”

But the Medal of Freedom ceremony also had a touch of humor as the president targeted Russell and investor Warren Buffet with one-liners.

“When Warren was a kid he lost a few bucks on his first stock and let’s just say he didn’t give up there and made a few more buys after that to some success,” said Obama to laughter from those in attendance.

As Obama prepared to honor Russell, the crowd laughed wondering how he would place the medal around his neck. Russell, who towers over the president, lowered his body to make it as easy as possible.

“Do we have a ladder?” quipped Obama. “Also, does everyone know that Bill was cut from his junior high school team?” “I guess we can say he’s done pretty good since.”

Other winners of the Medal of Freedom included former President George H.W. Bush, Hall of Fame baseball player Stan Musial, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, co-founder of NRDC John H. Adams, artist Jasper Johns, Holocaust survivor and author Gerda Weissmann Klein, humanitarian Dr. Tom Little, civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez, founder of VSA Jean Kennedy Smith, musician Yo-Yo Ma, and President Emeritus of the AFL-CIO John Sweeney.


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Bill Russell to receive Medal of Freedom