What Is the Presidential Medal of Freedom?

By Nova BarelaLast Updated Feb 11, 2021 1:59:57 PM ET
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While Americans can be recognized for their excellence with various awards, only one can be bestowed upon them by the President of the United States. The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor one can attain, celebrates those who make indelible contributions to their fields — and to the country. The medal has a long history, dating back to President John F. Kennedy, and it has been awarded to some of the most iconic and influential Americans of the 20th and 21st centuries. So, how did the medal come to be?

What Is The Presidential Medal Of Freedom?

Established through President Kennedy’s Executive Order 11085 in 1963, the official description of the award reads: "An especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors." In short, the purpose of this award is to give recognition to those who have made a significant contribution to the United States, but they can also be decorated for their efforts in attaining world peace or making major contributions to society at large.

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Although it is the highest civilian honor in the United States, it can be awarded to folks who aren’t American citizens. Additionally, it can also be bestowed upon members of the military. As pictured above, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is a golden star, backed by white enamel and a red pentagonal shape. The center disk of the medal has thirteen gold stars on a blue background inside a ring of gold. Between the points of the stars stand golden North American bald eagles, their wings spread. Intended to be worn around the neck with the blue-and-white striped ribbon, it can also be worn on a bow on one’s left chest — or, in some cases, pinned to a military uniform.

A special grade of the award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction is a bit more rare to come by. This award is a larger execution of the same medal design and is meant to be worn as a star on the left chest along with a sash, which is worn over the right shoulder.

History Behind The Medal Of Freedom

As mentioned above, the award was first established by President Kennedy in 1963. The executive order indicated that the awards were meant to be given annually around the Fourth of July — or at other times that the sitting president deems appropriate. While the president has the final say, he does take recommendations from the Distinguished Civilian Services Award Board and people of note.

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Although it has happened only twice, the Presidential Medal of Freedom can be given out more than once to the same person — as was the case with Colin Powell and Ellsworth Bunker. Additionally, it can be awarded posthumously, which has been done on several occasions. Folks awarded after their passing include: John Wayne, Pope John XXIII, President John F. Kennedy and Thurgood Marshall. Additionally, 50 years after they were murdered, civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner received the medal posthumously as per President Barack Obama.

Of course, not all of the awards prove decorous in hindsight. In 2002, Bill Cosby was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — years before his crimes of sexual assault were made public. When the truth emerged, then-President Obama said that there was no precedent or mechanism for revoking the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but, even if there was no official way to rescind the medal, he stated that no country should tolerate rape.

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Additionally, there have been only a few instances of people declining the award. For example, Moe Berg, Jacqueline Kennedy and Harry S. Truman all declined the award, citing that the award would be a distraction from their work. But not all declinations have arisen from humility. In 2021, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick declined the award after then-President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol.

Past Recipients of The Medal Of Freedom

Over the years, 653 people have been honored with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, from civil rights advocates, engineers and teachers to musicians, poets, and former presidents. Some of the more famous Medal of Freedom recipients include:

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: Known for his role in the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King received the award from President Jimmy Carter in 1977.

Annie Dodge Wauneka: One of the original recipients of the award, she was an influential member of the Navajo Nation, whose tireless advocacy resulted in better health and education for Indigenous folks.

Rosa Parks: Most well known for her refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955 — and then ensuring bus boycott — Parks is a civil rights leader and icon. In 1996, President Bill Clinton recognized her contributions with the award.

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Congresswoman Barbara Jordan: Known for shattering both gender and racial barriers, she received the award from President Clinton in 1994.

President Joe Biden: As vice president, Biden received the award from then-President Obama in 2017. Additionally, this was the first Presidential Medal of Freedom given to a person who would later become president of the United States.