Civil rights activist Robert King and artist Grayson Perry are among 12 people receiving honorary awards from Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge.
Mr King, a former Black Panthers member, was recognised for his campaigning since being released from 29 years' solitary confinement in an American prison known as "Angola".
Along with two fellow activists, they became known as the "Angola 3".
Scientists and sportsmen were also honoured at the ceremony.
The artist and social critic Mr Perry, who won the Turner Prize in 2003, attended the ceremony as his alter-ego, Claire.
He received an Honorary Doctor of Arts "in recognition of his thought-provoking and uncompromising artistic works".
Mr King was given an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree in recognition of his campaign to free fellow inmates - Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox - who were incarcerated with him in Louisiana State Penitentiary, a university spokesman said.
The largest in the US, the jail is nicknamed Angola after a plantation that once stood on its site.
All three men maintain they were imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.
Mr King's own conviction was overturned and he was released in 2001.
He said: "As the only freed member of the Angola 3, I am honoured and humbled to be accepting this honorary Doctor of Laws degree.
"Many people have been involved in my evolution and for this I am grateful.
"So I will accept this award also in recognition of them, especially to my comrades Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace who are still fighting for freedom after 40 years in solitary confinement, to all political prisoners and to all those who fight for justice."
A university spokesman added: "Robert often says that he is just a ripple in the water, but if everyone he meets can make a ripple then the ripples become waves which can make a real difference."
Mr King will also attend a screening of a documentary about the Angola 3 - In the Land of the Free - narrated by Samuel L Jackson.
The Black Panthers were a black nationalist movement which flourished in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s.