Inside Biden’s Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony honoring Black luminaries, including the ‘grandmother of Juneteenth’

The “Grandmother of Juneteenth” and the man who contributed to parts of of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Joe Bide at the White House on Friday.

They were among 19 people, including current and former elected officials, to be given the highest civilian honor.

Known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” for her decades of work pushing for Juneteenth to become a federal holiday, Opal Lee is a 97-year-old retired Texas educator. After the ceremony, Lee said she didn’t “know how to express” what it felt like to “be in the room with all these people who have achieved so much.” Among the honorees were Oscar-winning actress Michelle Yeoh, TV journalism icon Phil Donahue, former New York City mayor and businessman Michael Bloomberg and Olympic gold medalist Kathleen Genevieve Ledecky.

“Getting Juneteenth as a national holiday has been something that so many of us have wanted for so long,” Lee said. “There’s so much more to do.”

In a packed East Room, Biden called the class of recipients “incredible people” whose “relentless curiosity and inventiveness, ingenuity and hope have kept faith and a better tomorrow.” 

Other recipients included Black luminaries like Clarence B. Jones, who served as King’s lawyer and helped draft the original “I Have a Dream” speech, and the late civil rights activist Medgar Evers.

Evers’ award was posthumously accepted by his daughter Reena Evers-Everette.

Biden praised Evers as a “patriot who was gunned down by the poison of white supremacy” whose “spirit endures.” He lauded Jones for “wield[ing] a pen as a sword and gave words to a movement that generated freedom for millions of people.”

Close allies of Biden also received the honor, including former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker and current Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; former Vice President Al Gore; former Secretary of State John Kerry, who recently served as Biden’s climate czar; and Rep. James “Jim” Clyburn, D-S.C., whom Biden credited for his presidency.

“I would not be standing here as president and making these awards were it not for Jim,” Biden said of 83-year-old Clyburn, who notably endorsed Biden in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary and saved his then-struggling campaign.

U.S. President Joe Biden awards the Medal of Freedom to U.S. Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on May 3, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Lee organized a 2.5-mile walk to commemorate the two and half years it took for enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas to learn that they were freed by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  

In 2021, Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, solidifying June 19 as a federal holiday. When he signed the bill into law, he handed the first of many pens used to sign it to Lee. 

“Juneteenth is a day of profound weight and power to remember the original sin of slavery and the extraordinary capacity to merge the most painful moments for the better visions of ourselves,” Biden said. “Ms. Opal Lee made it her mission to make history, not erase it. We’re a better nation because of you.”

U.S. retired teacher and activist Opal Lee attends the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House in Washington, DC, on May 3, 2024. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

The Presidential Medal of Freedom was first established in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy. Among the civilians to have been awarded the presidential honor are civil rights activist Rosa Parks, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, writer Maya Angelou, actor Sidney Poitier, activist Bayard Rustin, entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey and athlete Michael Jordan, among others.

After presenting the awards, Biden concluded remarks by saying, “It makes you proud to be an American doesn’t it?” to a room full of applause. 

Vice President Kamala Harris congratulated the recipients in a social media post on Saturday, sharing a photograph of her with Biden and Lee.

“You represent the best of America,” she wrote in the post.

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