A former Fisk University student and a close liaison to John Lewis are among several leaders recently honored with Presidential Medals of Freedom. Learn more in the story by Kirsten Fiscus at the Nashville Tennessean below.
Civil rights icons Diane Nash and Fred Gray on Thursday afternoon were awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Joe Biden.
Nash and Gray — both have ties to Nashville — were among 15 others who received the award.
The Medal of Freedom is awarded to people who made significant contributions in the U.S. or internationally in politics, philanthropy, science, sports, the arts and other arenas.
In 1959, Nash, a Chicago native, arrived in Nashville to attend Fisk University. She led sit-ins at Nashville lunch counters, marching to the courthouse plaza, now named for her, to confront the mayor. Nash also coordinated freedom rides when violence threatened participants and, while pregnant, was jailed in Mississippi for teaching minors nonviolence protest tactics.
She was elected chairperson of the Nashville movement and was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Biden recalled a phone call between Nash and U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s top aids where they warned her about the increasing violence surrounding the Freedom Rides.
“She replied, and I quote, ‘We all signed our last will and testaments before we left. We know some of them will be killed. We cannot let violence overcome nonviolence,'” Biden said.
Biden praised her “unshakeable courage,” during the Civil Rights Movement.
“Her activism echoes the call of freedom around the world today,” he said, “and yet she’s the first to say the medal is shared with hundreds of thousands of patriotic Americans that sacrificed so much for the cause of liberty and justice for all.”
Gray, a native of Montgomery, Alabama, attended Nashville Christian Institute, a now-defunct African American preparatory school. As a famed civil rights lawyer, he led some of the most pivotal legal cases of the era, defending Rosa Parks and serving as one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s first lawyers when the civil rights leader was a Montgomery pastor. Gray also served as legal counsel for Tuskegee Syphilis Study victims.
“Fred’s legal brilliance and strategy desegregated schools and secured the right to vote,” Biden said. “He went on to be elected as one of the first African Americans elected to the state Alabama legislature since Reconstruction.
“An ordained minister, he imbued a righteous calling that touched the soul of our nation.”
17 Receiving Presidential Medal of Freedom
Simone Biles, the most decorated U.S. gymnast in history and an advocate for athletes’ mental health, children in foster care and sexual assault victims.
Sister Simone Campbell, a member of the Sister of Social Service and a former executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice organization. She is an advocate for economic justice, overhauling the U.S. immigration system and health care policy.
Julieta Garcia, a former president of the University of Texas at Brownsville and the first Latina to become a college president.
Gabrielle Giffords, a former U.S. House member from Arizona who founded an organization dedicated to ending gun violence after being shot in the head and gravely wounded during a constituent event
Fred Gray, one of the first Black members of the Alabama Legislature after Reconstruction. He was a prominent civil rights attorney who represented Rosa Parks, the NAACP and Martin Luther King Jr.
Steve Jobs, co-founder, chief executive and chair of Apple Inc. He died in 2011.
Father Alexander Karloutsos, assistant to Archbishop Demetrios of America. The White House said Karloutsos has counseled several U.S. presidents.
Khizr Khan, an immigrant from Pakistan whose Army officer son was killed in Iraq. Khan gained national prominence, and became a target of Donald Trump’s wrath, after speaking at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Sandra Lindsay, the New York nurse who became an advocate for COVID-19 vaccinations after receiving the first dose in the U.S.
John McCain, the late U.S. senator from Arizona who was the Republican presidential nominee in 2008.
Diane Nash, a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who organized some of the most important 20th century civil rights campaigns and worked with King.
Megan Rapinoe, Olympic gold medalist and two-time Women’s World Cup soccer champion. She is a prominent advocate for gender pay equality, racial justice and LGBTQI+ rights.
Alan Simpson, retired U.S. senator from Wyoming who has been a prominent advocate for campaign finance reform, responsible governance and marriage equality.
Richard Trumka, who was president of the 12.5 million-member AFL-CIO for more than a decade at the time of his 2021 death and was a past president of the United Mine Workers.
Wilma Vaught, a brigadier general and one of the most decorated women in U.S. military history, who broke gender barriers as she rose through the ranks. When Vaught retired in 1985, she was one of only seven female generals in the Armed Forces.
Denzel Washington, a double Oscar-winning actor, director and producer and a longtime spokesperson for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
Raúl Yzaguirre, civil rights advocate, who was president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza for 30 years. He served as U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic.