Article by Kathy Gilbert

WASHINGTON, D.C. (UMNS) — The Rev. Joseph Lowery, 87, a United Methodist pastor and leader in the civil rights movement, is among 16 people who will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for a civilian. The medals will be presented at a White House ceremony Aug. 12.

Lowery said he was especially honored to be in President Obama’s “first class” of award recipients.

Other recipients include Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, tennis legend Billie Jean King, actor Sidney Poitier, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, physicist Stephen Hawking, former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and dancer Chita Rivera.

Others to be honored are Nancy Goodman Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the world’s leading breast cancer grass-roots organization; Dr. Pedro Jose Greer Jr., founder of Camillus Health Concern, which provides medical care for more than 10,000 homeless people a year in Miami; Joseph Medicine Crow-High Bird, the last living Plains Indian war chief and a Native American historian; Mary Robinson, ex-president of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; Janet Davison Rowley, a geneticist who identified the cause of leukemia; and Muhammad Yunus, whose anti-poverty efforts include “micro-loans” to provide credit to poor individuals without collateral.

Posthumous honorees are former football star and 1996 vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp, and former San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, whose 1978 assassination is the subject of an award-winning documentary and feature film.

Obama said these folks from “an incredible diversity of backgrounds” share another trait: “Each has been an agent of change. Each saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way.”

Lowery gave the benediction and shared the inaugural platform with Obama on Jan. 20. In an interview after it was announced he would do the benediction, Lowery said he “never imagined” he would live to see an African-American elected president.

On Inauguration Day Lowery prayed, “Help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate, on the side of inclusion, not exclusion, tolerance, not intolerance.”

Lowery co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957. Lowery served as its president and chief executive officer for 20 years, beginning in 1977.

King named Lowery to lead the delegation to take the demands of the Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965 to Alabama Gov. George Wallace. The governor had ordered the marchers beaten, an episode that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Wallace apologized to Lowery in 1995 as the civil rights pioneer led the 30th anniversary re-enactment of the historic march that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Lowery was elected a delegate to three United Methodist General Conferences, the denomination’s highest policy-making body. He also presided over a regional conference as acting bishop in 1966. He served as pastor of United Methodist churches in Mobile and Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta, where he led Central Church for 18 years.

Lowery said he was “stunned” when he got the call about the honor. “I am grateful, excited, overjoyed … I wish I had more eloquent terms to express my feelings. I can’t seem to get beyond humbled and honored,” Lowery said.

Lowery said he thinks that people who work without thought of reward in often thankless tasks need to be encouraged. “I have not sought any kind of reward or recognition, yet God gives the increase and I’m thankful for that,” he said. “We need to keep on struggling because our labor is not in vain.”

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