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Obama honours 13 with Medal of Freedom at White House

media captionObama: I am a really big fan

President Barack Obama has bestowed the nation's highest civilian honour on political and cultural figures in a ceremony at the White House.

Musician Bob Dylan, astronaut John Glenn, and Israeli President Shimon Peres were among the Medal of Freedom recipients.

The award is given to people from all walks of life who have made exceptional contributions to society.

It was established by former President John F Kennedy in 1963.

Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman on 24 May 1941 and began his musical career in 1959, playing in Minnesota coffee houses.

He took his stage name from the poet Dylan Thomas and, not coincidentally, paid as much attention to his lyrics as his music.

Much of his best-known work dates from the 1960s, when he became an informal historian of America's troubles.

Songs such as Blowin' In The Wind and The Times They Are a-Changin' became anthems of the anti-war and civil rights movements.

His move away from traditional folk songwriting, paired with a controversial decision to "go electric", proved equally influential - his confessional, introspective lyrics were undoubtedly absorbed by The Beatles in their later work.

He continues to record and tour, expanding his horizons with a US radio show and a recently signed six-book publishing deal.


Another luminary to be awarded the honour, Toni Morrison, is renowned for her portrayal of the African-American experience in novels such as Song Of Solomon, and Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.

Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931 in Ohio, she went on to become a senior editor at publishers Random House before pursuing her writing career.

image captionToni Morrison was honoured for her contribution to American fiction

Outside of novels, she has written literary criticism and even lyrics for operas, including Honey and Rue, with music by Andre Previn.

Once asked by a student who she wrote for, Morrison replied: "I want to write for people like me, which is to say black people, curious people, demanding people...

"People who can't be faked, people who don't need to be patronised, people who have very, very high criteria."

The 13 people awarded the Medal of Freedom at Tuesday's ceremony in the East Room of the White House included:

  • Madeleine Albright, secretary of state from 1997 to 2001 and the first woman to hold that post
  • John Doar, assistant attorney general in charge of civil rights at the Department of Justice during the 1960s
  • William Foege, physician and former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who led the campaign to eradicate smallpox
  • Gordon Hirabayashi, who fought the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and died in January
  • Dolores Huerta, community activist and co-founder of the National Farmworkers Association in 1962
  • Jan Karski, officer in the Polish Underground in World War II and later a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, who died in 2000
  • Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts in 1912, who died in 1927
  • John Paul Stevens, associate justice of the US Supreme Court from 1975 to 2010
  • Pat Summitt, basketball coach who has won more games than any other coach, and spokeswoman against Alzheimer's disease

Previous honourees include Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher, Stephen Hawking, Walt Disney, Doris Day, Duke Ellington and Aretha Franklin.

More on this story

  • Bob Dylan to get US Medal of Freedom