50 years of President Kennedy's Medal of Freedom

Tonight, we're hosting a dinner for this year's recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. First awarded by President Harry Truman in 1945, the modern version of the award was established by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. This year, 16 individuals will join the 500 who have been awarded the medal in the past 50 years, in a ceremony attended by current and past recipients that was webcast live


You can also view the webcast here. A performance by jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval follows.

Two weeks before he planned to honor the inaugural Medal of Freedom recipients, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Along with all the duties of the presidency, new president Lyndon Johnson inherited the task of presiding over the first modern Medal of Freedom ceremony, which he did at the White House on the day Kennedy's family moved out.

This year's recipients include former President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and the late Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii. A lifelong public servant, Inouye received a Medal of Honor for his service in World War II and was the first Japanese American in Congress, representing the people of Hawaii from the moment they joined the Union until his death in 2012.

 

Daniel Inouye campaign material. Senator Inouye was a great supporter of the Smithsonian’s work; he was instrumental in the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.
Daniel Inouye campaign material. Senator Inouye was a supporter of the Smithsonian's work, instrumental in the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

Medal of Freedom recipients represent a diverse set of Americans—former presidents, activists, sports figures, and more—who all demonstrate leadership and a dedication to enriching the lives of others.

The museum has in its collection the Medal of Freedom awarded to Duke Ellington, a cultural icon and leader in American music. The medal is one of Curator of American Music John Hasse's favorite objects. Ellington, who was born in Washington, D.C., in 1899, spent most of his long career in New York, but he returned to the city of his birth to receive his medal on his 70th birthday, 44 years ago. Hasse says, "The 10-block journey from his birthplace to the White House took Ellington 70 years—and 10 million miles of travels."

Hasse adds that the award must have held many layers of meanings for Ellington, whose father worked as a butler for a white physician and occasionally "buttled" at the White House. For Ellington to be recognized so highly in a place where his father once had to enter via the back door—it is a poignant reminder of where our country has been and where it continues to progress. This year, recipients come from all backgrounds and possess a variety of talents, but all illustrate a common commitment to the service of our nation and the world.

 

Duke Ellington's Presidential Medal of Freedom is housed in a handsome wooden case and was awarded by President Richard Nixon
Duke Ellington's Presidential Medal of Freedom is housed in a handsome wooden case and was awarded by President Richard Nixon

In his speech at the 1963 medal ceremony, President Johnson noted how Kennedy's assassination cast a sad light on man's capacity for hatred and destruction: "There is little we do not know of evil, but it is time to turn once more to the pursuits of honor and excellence and of achievement that have always marked the true direction of the American people." The Medal of Freedom helps us remember President Kennedy as we recognize those individuals who have striven to further his legacy of service.

Leanne Elston is an intern in the New Media Department at the National Museum of American History.

Posted at 1:10 pm EST in On the Web