Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Medal of Freedom Winners

Well, the healthcare debate is depressing as a senator from Idaho representing 1/4 of 1% of the population is threatening to kill a public option in healthcare desired by 72% of the population (90% of Democrats and even 50% of Republicans!). And the civil rights situation is depressing–from Skip Gates arrest at his own home because he was rude to a cop (I don’t which scares me more: that this was racially motivated or that it wasn’t and the new police policy is to  arrest anyone in our own homes without warrant or probable cause if we aren’t humble enough!) to the fact that it took 7 years and two ACLU suits and two different federal judges ruling in his favor before a 12 year old boy could be released from Gitmo.  So there is much in the news to make me cringe right now.

But some things are cheering.  After seeing the Bush administration demean our nation’s highest civilian award (The Presidential Medal of Freedom) by giving it to such undeserving persons as former CIA head George Tenet and former Australian President Howard, it is refreshing to see the contrast with Obama’s first 16 winners. Here they are below.:

  • Nancy Goodman Brinker, founder of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a grassroots organization that invests in research to fight breast cancer.
  • Pedro Jose Greer, Jr., founder of the Camillus Health Concern, an agency providing free healthcare to over 10,000 homeless patients a year in Miami, FL.
  • Stephen Hawking, one of the most famous theoretical physicists and mathematicians alive, this quadrapelegic man worked through severe disabilities to pioneer academic research in math and physics.
  • Jack Kemp, winning posthumously, was a U.S. Congressman, Secretary of the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (in the Reagan administration) who worked to help eliminate poverty in urban areas (the empowerment zones).  He was also former Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS)’s VP running mate in the ’96 presidential campaign.
  • Sen. Edward (“Teddy”) Kennedy (D-MA), who has served as a U.S. Senator for 46 years, is awarded for his lifelong fight for quality healthcare for all Americans, especially for seniors, children, and people with disabilities.
  • Billie Jean King, professional tennis player in the ’60s and ’70s for her pioneering work for equality as the first openly lesbian major sports star.
  • Rev. Joseph Lowry, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, has been a leader in the struggle for civil rights, especially racial equality, but also equality for the sexes and for GLBT persons.
  • Joe Medicine Crow-High Bird is the last living war chief among the Plains Native Americans and an award-winning author on Native American history and culture.
  • Harvey Milk, receiving the award posthumously, was the first openly gay man to be an elected official in any American city when he joined the San Francisco Board of Supervisers in 1977. He pushed the civil rights agenda of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people and was assassinated for his efforts.
  • Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, retired, was the first woman to be appointed as a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. (A Reagan appointee, I did not expect much from Justice O’Conner and was very pleasantly surprised. Overall, she was an excellent justice and I still regret her retirement.)
  • Sidney Poitier, was the first African-American actor to be nominated and win an Academy Award for Best Actor.
  • Chita Rivera, was the first Latina recipient of the performing arts award from the Kennedy Center.  In 1957 she made her breakthrough performance as “Anita” in the Broadway production of West Side Story and has won two Tony Awards.
  • Mary Robinson, was the first president of the Republic of Ireland and later United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She is now the founder of Realizing Rights:  The Ethical Globalization Initiative, an organization that focuses on the link (positive and negative) between human rights and the process of globalization.
  • Janet Davison Rowley, is a human geneticist, and the first scientist to identify a chromosomal translocation as the cause of leukemia and other cancers.  In 1999, she was awarded the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific award in the United States.
  • Desmond Tutu, is a retired Anglican Archbishop of Capetown and a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (1984) who played a major role in ending racial apartheid in South Africa. As the head of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Archbishop Tutu also played a major role in the healing of racial tensions in post-apartheid South Africa.  He has been a major voice for nonviolence, human rights,  democracy, and peace throughout the world (and is a personal hero).
  • Muhammed Yunus, economist and founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, pioneered the practice of no-interest micro-loans to the poor as a path to ending poverty. (The Grameen Bank has a 90% repayment rate, far above that of traditional banks to  the middle class or even the wealthy.) The micro-lending movement has now been adopted in many places around the world. For his  efforts combatting poverty and promoting “social businesses” alongside traditional, for-profit, businesses, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

This is truly an amazing list of people. These are the kinds of people and efforts that our nation should be honoring.


July 30, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. I wonder if Reverend Joseph Lowry and I are related since we both have the same surname.

    Comment by Paul | July 31, 2009

  2. Well, Paul, I don’t usually ask commenters personal questions like this, but are you African-American? Because, if not, you probably aren’t related to Rev. Joseph Lowry, a United Methodist minister and one of the great champions of justice of our time.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 31, 2009

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: