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Barack Obama
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Tuesday during the Medal of Freedom recipients ceremony.
updated 2/15/2011 10:31:27 PM ET 2011-02-16T03:31:27

Rep. John Lewis has been to the White House on many occasions, but Tuesday's visit truly was unique. An "impossible dream," as the former civil rights activist would later describe it.

Lewis, former President George H.W. Bush and 13 others received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor for contributions to society.

A product of the 1960s civil rights movement, Lewis was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and helped organize sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in the South.
In 1965, as he led a peaceful march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., he and others were severely beaten by Alabama state troopers in what became known as "Bloody Sunday." The event is credited with helping to spur passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

President Barack Obama, who awarded the medals at a White House ceremony, said Lewis had taken to heart a quote that asks, "If not us, then who? If not now, then when?"

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"Generations from now, when parents teach their children what is meant by courage, the story of John Lewis will come to mind: an American who knew that change could not wait for some other person or some other time," Obama said.

The Georgia congressman said the award was even more special coming from Obama.

"If someone had told me that one day I would be standing in the White House and an African-American president would be presenting me the Medal of Freedom I would say, 'Are you crazy? Are you out of your mind?'" he told reporters afterward. "It's just an impossible dream."

Some of the loudest applause was for Bush, who has devoted nearly 70 of his 86 years to public service, starting when he joined the Navy on his 18th birthday. He also was a congressman from Texas, U.N. ambassador, Republican Party chairman, U.S. envoy to China, director of central intelligence, vice president for two terms and the 41st president for one term.

BLTWY: Medal of Freedom winners

"His life is a testament that public service is a noble calling," Obama said. Bush's wife, Barbara, and their children listened from the front row. "His humility and his decency reflect the very best of the American spirit. Those of you who know him, this is a gentleman."

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A touching moment came during the presentation for Dr. Tom Little, an optometrist from New York who was killed by the Taliban last August during a humanitarian mission in Afghanistan. His wife, Libby, accepted. She appeared emotional and Obama rubbed her back as her husband's medal citation was read.

The other medal recipients are:

—John H. Adams, co-founder of Natural Resources Defense Council

—Maya Angelou, an author and poet who wrote and recited one of her works at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1992.

—Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway and one of the world's richest men. The famed investor is also a philanthropist and leader of an effort challenging the country's wealthiest people to step up their charitable giving.

—Jasper Johns, an artist whose work has dealt with themes of perception and identity. He is considered a major influence on pop, minimalist and conceptual art.

—Gerda Weissmann Klein, Holocaust survivor, author and founder of Citizenship Counts, an organization that teaches students to cherish being American citizens.

—Yo-Yo Ma, a world-renowned cellist and 16-time Grammy winner who is known for his interpretations of Bach and Beethoven. He played at Obama's inauguration and at other White House events.

—Sylvia Mendez, a civil rights activist of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent.

—Angela Merkel, the first woman and first East German to serve as chancellor of a unified Germany. She did not attend the ceremony, but Obama said she'd be paying him a visit soon.

—Stan Musial, Hall of Fame baseball player who spent 22 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals.

—Bill Russell, the former captain of the Boston Celtics and first black man to become an NBA head coach.

—Jean Kennedy Smith, founder of VSA, a nonprofit organization that promotes the artistic talents of people with disabilities.

—John J. Sweeney, president emeritus of the AFL-CIO.

President Harry S. Truman established the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1945 to recognize civilians for their efforts during World War II. President John F. Kennedy reinstated the medal in 1963 to honor distinguished service.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Obama honors Medal of Freedom recipients

Photos: The life and times of George H.W. Bush

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  1. Early days

    George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States, was born June 12, 1924, in Milton, Mass. Soon after, the family moved to Greenwich, Conn. His father, Prescott Bush, was a railroad and steel executive who went on to become a U.S. Senator from Connecticut. The future president is seen here with his sister Mercy in 1929. (The White House via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Substantial family

    Bush was the second of five chidlren and part of an influential and affluent family. He is seen here (top left) with his father, Prescott (center), and other family members in this undated photo. Bush went to the prestigious Phillips Academy boarding school in Andover, Mass., before joining the Navy as an aviator soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Young gun

    Joining the Navy just out of high school, Bush became the service's youngest aviator at age 19, seeing considerable action in the Pacific. In 1944 the aircraft he was piloting was hit by flak and he was forced to bail into the ocean, where he waited for four hours in a rubber raft until being rescued. Bush flew 58 missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and several other medals. He was honorably discharged at the end of the war, having married Barbara Pierce in January 1945. (Hulton Archive - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A Yale man

    Like his father and several other forbears, Bush attended Yale University in New Haven, Conn. Because of his war service, he was enrolled in an accelerated program that enabled him to graduate in 1948. At Yale he was active in sports, playing first base for the college's team and taking part in the first two College World Series. Like his father (and his eldest son, George Walker Bush), he became a member of the secretive Skull and Bones Society. He graduated with a degree in economics. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Oilman turns to politics

    After Yale, Bush moved to Midland, Texas, where his father had connections in the oil industry. After a couple of years working for someone else, Bush started his own drilling and exploration company, which was soon lucrative and made him a rich man in his own right. After about a decade, though, his ambitions turned to politics, and after an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 1964, he won a Congressional seat in 1966. He is seen with his wife, Barbara, during one of his campaigns during the 1960s. (The White House via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Pilots together

    Bush proudly displays the officer's bar of 2nd Lt. George W. Bush during the ceremony in which the younger Bush was sworn into the Air National Guard in 1968. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. China hand

    In 1970, President Nixon persuaded Bush to run for the U.S. Senate, a race he lost. Nixon then appointed him U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, a job he held for two years. Following Nixon's resignation, President Ford appointed Bush as a special envoy to China, where he is seen with wife Barbara in 1974. (The White House via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Spy-in-chief

    In January 1976, Ford appointed Bush as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Both are seen here at the swearing-in ceremony. But the job was to last less than a year because Ford was defeated by Jimmy Carter in the November general election and Carter declined to keep him in the position. Bush then returned to private life in Texas. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Push for president

    In the late '70s, Bush decided that he wanted to be president and began traveling the country in an attempt to drum up support. He entered the Republican primaries in early 1980 and had some early success before being defeated by Ronald Reagan. Here, he peeks around a partition displaying a poster of Reagan during an event in Columbia, S.C. At the convention later that year, Reagan selected Bush to be his running mate, placing him on the winning Republican presidential ticket. (Anonymous / ASSOCIATED PRESS) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Ticket on parade

    Reagan and Bush are shown on the podium of Joe Louis Arena in Detroit as the final curtain draws near on the July 1980 Republican National Convention. Nancy Reagan is at left and Barbara Bush is at right. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Second race

    In 1984, Reagan and Bush were reelected for a second term, beating Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro. Here, Bush greets Ferraro, the first woman vice-presidential candidate, before the beginning of their October 1984 debate. The event was to prove contentious, with Ferraro accusing Bush of having a "patronizing attitude" and fiercely defending her pro-choice view on abortion. (Gene J. Puskar / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Snuggle time

    President and Barbara Bush have a bedroom get-together with grandchildren Pierce, twins Barbara and Jenna (in bed), Marshall, Jeb. Jr. and Sam during an August 1987 vacation at their summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine. (David Valdez / The White House via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Inner circle

    Bush, at right, attends a meeting of President Reagan's council of economic advisers. After a somewhat frosty beginning, Bush and Reagan became close and would lunch together in the Oval Office every Thursday. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Ticket and wives

    Bush and his wife, Barbara, left, stand with vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle and his wife, Marilyn, at the conclusion of the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans. Bush and Quayle won the subsequent election. (Ron Edmonds / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Riding a wave

    President-elect Bush is hit by a wave while fishing in Florida following his 1988 election victory. (Robert Sullivan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Goodbye and hello

    Reagan and Bush leave the White House on January 20, 1989, Reagan's last day as president and Bush's first day in the Oval Office. Bush had beaten Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis the previous November. (The White House via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. The wall falls

    One of the major events of Bush's presidency was the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Here, thousands of young East Berliners gather near the Brandenburg Gate after Guenter Schabowski, the East Berlin Communist party boss, declared that East Germans would be free to leave the country. (Gerard Malie / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Another toppling

    Another regime change came in December 1989 when American forces removed Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega from power. Here, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney stands by as General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefs reporters about the operation. (Bob Pearson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Confronting Saddam

    In the summer of 1990, Bush had another international crisis on his hands -- the Iraqi invasion of neighboring Kuwait. Here, American fighters fly over a Kuwaiti oilfield which had been torched by retreating Iraqi troops during the ensuing Gulf War. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Last rites

    Bush and Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev laugh during a July 1991 press conference in Moscow that concluded a two-day summit on nuclear disarmament. A month later, Gorbachev was under house arrrest after a coup. Though he was restored to power, the Soviet Union crumbled and Gorbachev left office in December. (Mike Fisher / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Controversial appointment

    Bush looks on as Clarence Thomas takes the oath to become a justice of the United States Supreme Court during a ceremony at the White House in October 1991. Holding the bible is Clarence's wife, Virginia. Thomas's confirmation came after contentious Senate hearings that included allegations of sexual harassment. (Marcy Nighswander / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Boris and Bush

    Gorbachev's successor in the Kremlin, Boris Yeltsin, throws a horseshoe during a game outside the Oval Office in July 1992. No word on who won. (J. David Ake / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Remember Ross?

    Presidential candidates Bill Clinton, Ross Perot and George Bush shake hands with panelists after the conclusion of their final presidential debate in October 1992. Perot's strong showing in the election, as well as fallout from Bush's broken "Read my lips -- no new taxes" pledge, were keys to Clinton's win. (J. David Ake / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Campaign sign

    Bush speaks to a group of supporters while a lone protester holds up a sign during a November 1992 campaign stop in New Jersey. Bush lost the election to Bill Clinton. (Robert Giroux / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Nabobs of NAFTA

    Bush caps his pen after signing the North American Free Trade Agreement at the Organization of American States headquarters in Washington D.C., in December 1992. Looking on are Mexican Ambassador Gustavo Petricioli, left, U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills and Canadian Ambassador Derek Burney. (Robert Giroux / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Aftermath of an assassination attempt

    An Iraqi resident walks through the rubble of his home in Baghdad in June 1993 after a U.S. cruise missile strike on Iraqi intelligence headquarters.The attack was in retaliation for an alleged Iraqi plot to assassinate former President George Bush in Kuwait in April. (Karim Sahib / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Handover handshake

    Bush shakes hands with President-elect Bill Clinton in November 1992 as Clinton leaves the White House after a meeting about the transition between administrations. (Luke Frazza / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. 41 congratulates 43

    President George W. Bush is hugged by his father after the younger Bush was sworn into office Jan. 20, 2001, on the South Front of the U.S. Capitol. (Luke Frazza / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Vlad to see you!

    Russian President Vladimir Putin is welcomed by Bush and former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III on his arrival in Houston, Texas, in November 2001. Putin delivered a speech at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. A two-term son

    Florida Governor Jeb Bush looks at early election results with his father and mother in a Miami hotel in November 2002. Bush, 49, became the first Republican Florida governor to win reelection. (Carl Juste / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Rivals no more

    Former Presidents Bush and Clinton are briefed by officials at a water purifying project in Sri Lanka in February 2005. l Clinton and Bush were on a four-nation tour of tsunami-hit countries, one of several aid projects the two have done together. (Findlay Kember / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. You daredevil, you

    Bush rides tandem with a member of the U.S. Army's Golden Knights parachute team as he celebrates his 85th birthday with a jump, Friday, June 12, 2009, over Kennebunkport, Maine. (SSG Joe Abeln / Army Golden Knights via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Honored by Obama

    President Obama congratulates Bush after presenting him with the 2010 Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House February 15, 2011. Obama awarded the medal to twelve pioneers in sports, labor, politics and arts. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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