Biden honors Black leaders with Presidential Medal of Freedom

President Joe Biden presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Congressman James E. Clyburn. (Photo: DreamInColor Photo / NNPA)

by Stacy M. Brown and Ashleigh Fields, The Washington Informer

On Friday, in the White House East Room, where the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed, President Joe Biden highlighted the work of Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.); Juneteenth advocate Opal Lee; the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speechwriter Clarence B. Jones; and the NAACP’s first field secretary in Mississippi, Medgar Evers, who was brutally murdered at his home.

Clyburn has a storied career in politics where he has ushered in new policies like the Affordable Connectivity Program which ignited rural broadband and access to internet for millions. He’s uplifted efforts toward the long-ranging preservation of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as a graduate of South Carolina State University and has afforded many students the opportunity to engage in the job boom for clean energy through the USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). 

“Words cannot express the profound honor and gratitude I feel upon receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This recognition is not only a testament to my work, but also to the countless individuals who have supported my journey; the giants who fought alongside me for justice, equity, and the pursuit of progress; and the support of my loving family,” said Rep. Clyburn. 

When elected, he became South Carolina’s first Black congressman since George W. Murray in 1893. The election came after he experienced the 1969 Charleston Hospital strike addressing the inequity of Black healthcare workers and the wake of the Orangeburg massacre, where police killed three protesting students at South Carolina State. As he receives this recognition he graciously looks back on a life geared towards political reform and a calling to fight injustice.  

“I reflect upon the moment I was elected president of my NAACP Youth Council in Sumter, South Carolina, at the age of 12. From leading student protests in Orangeburg, South Carolina, to marshaling majorities to pass consequential legislation in Congress, I have learned that we all have roles to play in making the greatness of this democracy accessible for everyone,” he explained. “I look forward to continuing my efforts to bend the arc of history towards justice and proving myself worthy of this incredible honor.”

Celebrating Opal Lee 

Lee, like Clyburn, has spent a long time fighting for justice and contends that the work toward shaping a better nation isn’t done. At 97 years old, Lee is just now seeing the fruits of her labor come to fruition. For years, she walked door to door in Fort Worth, Texas promoting the importance of Juneteenth, a day of remembrance for the formerly enslaved. 

Annually, Lee took the 2.5-mile walk to represent the 2.5 years it took for news of the Emancipation Proclamation to reach cities in Texas. At 89, she conducted a four-month symbolic walk from Fort Worth, to Washington, D.C. hoping to plead her case for a federal holiday to former president Barack Obama. However, her life’s mission would be fulfilled exactly four years later in 2021 when President Biden signed a formal bill instating a day of reminiscing nationwide. 

The continuous toil of yearly celebrations as a community informant earned Lee the affectionate title of “Grandmother of Juneteenth.”

One year later, Jones would influence King’s impactful words again as a draft writer of the 1968 “I Have a Dream Speech” during the March on Washington. 

Decades have gone by with Jones uplifting and educating the next generation at delivering speeches at college campuses, and local nonprofit entities.

Remembering Medgar Evers

The White House described Evers, one of the three posthumous recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, as someone who “fought for his country in World War II and returned home to lead the fight against segregation in Mississippi.”

Evers, born in 1925 in Decatur, Mississippi, is remembered for his unwavering dedication to the civil rights movement despite facing relentless racism and threats to his life. His childhood was marked by the pervasive specter of racism, with incidents like the lynching of a family friend serving as stark reminders of the injustice prevalent in the community. Determined to make a difference, Evers enlisted in the Army during World War II, serving with distinction in a segregated field battalion in England and France.

After returning, Evers earned a Bachelor of Arts from Alcorn College, where he met Myrlie Beasley, whom he married in 1951. He embarked on a career in activism, joining the NAACP and organizing boycotts and protests to combat segregation and discrimination. His efforts caught the attention of the NAACP national leadership, leading to his appointment as Mississippi’s first field secretary for the organization.

 

His outspokenness in attempts to address the murder of teenager Emmett Till in Mississippi and in favor of veteran Clyde Kennard made him a martyr after Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens Council, shot him in the back of the head. The assassination rang in the hearts of thousands who would later attend Evers’ funeral and burial ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery where he received full military honors. 

“The National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) joins all Americans today to salute all of the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award recipients at the White House,” NNPA President and CEO Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., stated. “The Biden-Harris administration continues to lead America forward toward freedom, justice, and equality for all. The NNPA takes special note and salute Congressman Clyburn and Medgar Evers for their outstanding and transformative courage and leadership in the ongoing freedom movement for civil and human rights. The Black Press of America extends heartfelt congratulations to Clyburn, Evers, and all who are being honored today.”

The full list of Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients can be found below:

Michael R. Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York City, revolutionized the financial information industry and significantly impacted various sectors, including education, the environment, public health, and the arts.

Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, has dedicated his life to gang intervention and rehabilitation, offering hope and opportunities to thousands in Los Angeles.

Senator Elizabeth Dole, a trailblazing leader who has served in various government roles, including the United States Senate and President of the American Red Cross, has steadfastly advocated for military caregivers and their families.

Phil Donahue, a pioneering journalist, revolutionized daytime television with his issue-oriented talk show, setting a new standard for engagement and discourse.

Al Gore, former Vice President, has been a prominent figure in climate activism and global diplomacy, earning recognition for his efforts to address climate change.

Clarence B. Jones, a civil rights activist and confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., played a pivotal role in shaping the civil rights movement and preserving Dr. King’s legacy.

Secretary John Kerry, a decorated veteran and former Secretary of State, has dedicated his life to public service, championing diplomacy and environmental stewardship.

Senator Frank Lautenberg, remembered for his extensive service in the United States Senate and advocacy for environmental protection and consumer safety, is honored posthumously.

Katie Ledecky, the most decorated female swimmer in history, has captivated audiences with her remarkable athleticism and achievements in the pool.

Opal Lee, an educator, and activist played a crucial role in making Juneteenth a federally recognized holiday. This symbolized a triumph in the ongoing struggle for equality.

Dr. Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman in space, continues to inspire future generations as a leading figure in science and exploration.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a longtime advocate for democracy and progressive values, has been instrumental in shaping legislative agendas and Democratic priorities.

Dr. Jane Rigby, a prominent astronomer, embodies the spirit of exploration and discovery, contributing to our understanding of the universe.

Teresa Romero, president of the United Farm Workers, has been a tireless advocate for the rights of agricultural workers, securing important victories that have improved their lives.

Judy Shepard, co-founder of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, has been a driving force in the fight against hate crimes, fostering progress and understanding.

Jim Thorpe, the first Native American to win an Olympic gold medal, broke barriers in sports and society, leaving an enduring legacy as an athlete and advocate.

Michelle Yeoh, an acclaimed actress, has broken stereotypes and enriched American culture through her groundbreaking work in film.

“There is nothing beyond our capacity when we act together,” Biden insisted. “These nineteen Americans built teams, coalitions, movements, organizations, and businesses that shaped America for the better. They are the pinnacle of leadership in their fields. They consistently demonstrated over their careers the power of community, hard work, and service.”

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