Washington, Jul 7 (EFE).- Amid a broad and bitter debate in the United States regarding gun control and the Supreme Court’s prohibition on abortion, President Joe Biden on Thursday presented the Medal of Freedom to 17 people who have stood out for their fight for social rights.
The country’s highest civilian award is given to those who make an “especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
The White House said in a statement that each of the recipients has “overcome significant obstacles to achieve impressive accomplishments in the arts and sciences, dedicated their lives to advocating for the most vulnerable among us, and acted with bravery to drive change in their communities – and across the world – while blazing trails for generations to come.”
Included on the president’s list of Medal of Freedom recipients this year were 17 public figures from politics, sports, business, civil rights and the military, along with others who have done outstanding work on issues considered to be priorities by Biden’s administration.
Gymnast Simone Biles and two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington were two of the most well-known of the figures receiving the consummate honor, along with three who were posthumously awarded: entrepreneur and Apple founder Steve Jobs, former Republican Sen. John McCain and Richard Trumka, the former president of the AFL-CIO, the largest US union.
Biden said that the honorees were an “extraordinary group of Americans.”
Biles, 25, did not need much of an introduction: she is the most decorated gymnast in US history with 32 Olympic and world medals, and in addition to her sports activities she has been active in the cause of athletes’ mental health and wellness, along with aiding foster children and the victims of sexual abuse.
“When she stands on a podium, we see what she is: Absolute courage to turn personal pain into greater purpose. To stand up and speak for those who cannot speak for themselves,” Biden said of Biles.
Biles, the youngest-ever Medal of Freedom recipient, was one of hundreds of female athletes who accused US Olympic team physician Larry Nassar of sexual abuse and put the spotlight on a system that allowed him to use his position to repeatedly rape them.
The 67-year-old Washington, in turn, is – Biden said – “one of the greatest actors in our history,” although he was unable to attend the ceremony because he presently has Covid. Also a film director and producer, Washington won Academy Awards for his role in “Training Day” (2002) and for “Glory” (1990).
In the case of McCain, who died in 2018, a long-time GOP senator and that party’s 2008 presidential candidate who was defeated by Barack Obama, Biden said that he was the one who encouraged the former naval aviator and Vietnam POW to run for elected office, adding that “I knew what incredible courage, intellect and conscience he had.”
Biden also honored former Democratic Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who in 2011 survived an assassination attempt, in which six other people died and she received a grave head wound, but has worked for years to achieve greater legislative control of firearms.
She appears on the Medal of Freedom roster at a time when the debate on gun control has surged to heated prominence after mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, along with the most recent such tragedy on July 4 in Highland Park, Illinois, where seven people died and more than three dozen were wounded.
Also honored with the coveted award on Thursday was the captain of the OL Reign soccer team, Megan Rapinoe, who helped lead her team to the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup and who has also been an activist for the rights of the LGTB community. Biden hailed her efforts both on and off the field and her fight for salary equality between male and female athletes.
Among the other distinguished honorees were Mexican-Americans Raul Yzaguirre and Julieta Garcia.
Yzaguirre was president of UnidosUS, an organization defending civil rights that was formerly known as the National Council of La Raza, and Garcia became president of the University of Texas at Brownsville, the first Hispanic women to head a US university.
With the award ceremony on Thursday, Biden became the first president to both present the Medal of Freedom and to have received it, having been accorded the high honor while serving as vice president under Obama in 2017, who at the time praised his VP’s “faith in your fellow Americans, … your love of country and a lifetime of service that will endure through the generations.”
Rounding out the list of honorees on Thursday were Father Alexander Karloutsos, Gold Star father Khizr Khan, critical care nurse Sandra Lindsay, civil rights advocates Diane Nash and Fred Gray, activist Sister Simone Campbell, former Sen. Alan Simpson and retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, who shattered multiple glass ceilings that had hindered the advancement of women in the US military.