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Bill and Melinda Gates Among Recipients of 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom

President Obama reminds us that our country’s diversity is what makes us great.

November 23, 2016

“This is America,” said President Obama referring to the diverse group of individuals whom he honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom this week.

The event honoring 21 American icons was significant not only because it continues a long American tradition of recognizing extraordinary achievements, but also because of what the honorees represented: the diversity of America. The sight of the men and women being honored by the President was a refreshing contrast to the divisive election year and post-election racial tension.

This is what makes us the greatest nation on earth…. Not because of our differences but because in our difference we find something common to share.

The 2016 honorees include scientists, athletes, actors and musicians. The recipients are diverse not only in profession but also in ethnicities, gender, orientation and religion. They include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elouise Cobell, Ellen DeGeneres, Robert De Niro, Seattle’s own Bill and Melinda Gates, Tom Hanks, Grace Hopper, Michael Jordan, Eduardo Padrón, Diana Ross, and others.

President Obama awards Bill Gates with the Medal of Freedom.

Awarding Bill and Melinda Gates for their work with the Gates Foundation, the President said, “For two decades, the Gates Foundation has worked to provide life-saving medical care to millions, boosting clean water supply, improving education for our children, rallying aggressive international action on climate change, cutting childhood mortality in half — the list could go on.”

President Obama reaches high to award Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the Presidential Medal of Freedom .

Honoring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as one of the recipients, the President called him basketball’s “most unstoppable force” for more than two decades. He is NBA’s all-time leading scorer and 19-time NBA All-Star. In addition to his athletic prowess, “[Abdul-Jabbar] stood up for his Muslim faith when it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t popular,” said the President.

About Blackfeet Nation tribal leader and activist, Elouise Cobell, the President said, “her life-long quest to address the miss-management of American-Indian lands, resources, trust funds, wasn’t about special treatment but [about] the equal treatment at the heart of the American promise.”

President Obama awards Ellen Degeneres with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Awarding Ellen DeGeneres, the President said, “It’s easy to forget now — when we’ve come so far, where now marriage is equal under the law — just how much courage was required for Ellen to come out on the most public of stages, almost 20 years ago.” He lauded her strength and significance for not only the LGBT community, but for all Americans in challenging our assumptions and her contribution to “push our country in the direction of justice.”

Maya Lin, designer of the iconic Vietnam War memorial was among the honorees.  “The Vietnam Veterans Memorial has changed the way we think about monuments, but also about how we think about sacrifice and patriotism,” said the President. “The project that Maya Lin designed for her college class earned her a B+,” said the President and then added, “and a permanent place in American history.”

Of Margaret Hamilton, software engineer for the Apollo space mission, the President said, “she symbolizes a generation of unsung women who helped send humankind into space.”

Another technology icon, honored was computer scientist and creator of the first computer language compiler, Grace Murray Hopper. “She saw beyond the boundaries of the possible,” said the President. “From cellphones to cyber command, we can thank Grace Hopper for opening programming to millions more people, helping to usher in the information age and profoundly shaping our digital world.”


“Cicely was never the likeliest of Hollywood stars,” said the President recognizing stage and screen actress Cicely Tyson. The daughter of immigrants from the West Indies, she was raised by a religious mother who forbade her children from going to the movies. In honoring her, the President quoted her as saying, “‘I would not accept roles unless they projected us, particularly women, in a realistic light and dealt with us as human beings.’”  

Frank Gehry, Tom Hanks, Lorne Michaels, Newt Minow and Robert Redford were also among the honorees.

Established in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor awarded at the President’s discretion to “individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

In his closing remarks, the President underscored the significance of American diversity.

 “This is what makes us the greatest nation on earth…. Not because of our differences but because in our difference we find something common to share. And what a glorious thing that is. What a great gift that is to America.”




Made possible in part by

Laila Kazmi

@Lailakaz — Laila Kazmi is a Northwest Emmy award-winning senior producer and writer at KCTS 9. Her first love is discovering and telling stories of diverse people, places and history. She has lived in Karachi, Bahrain, Chicago, and Seattle. At KCTS 9, Laila produces the series Borders & Heritage, featuring stories of immigrant and refugee experiences in the Pacific Northwest and has produced Reel NW, featuring independent films from and about the Pacific Northwest. Her video-stories have appeared on KCTS 9PBS NewsHour Art Beat, World Channel at WGBH, and KPBS in San Diego. Her articles have been published in PBS NewsHour Art BeatThe Seattle Times, Seattle PI, COLORLINES and Pakistan’s daily Dawn. Laila has a Master of Communication from the University of Washington.

More stories by Laila Kazmi

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