South African cleric and activist Desmond Tutu, who rose to worldwide fame during the 1980s as an opponent of apartheid has been honored yet again, with the highest U.S. civilian honor – the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is given to individuals who have made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.
Archbishop Tutu received his medal at the White House ceremony from President Barack Obama as an agent of change. Other recipients of the medal were Veteran US Senator Edward Kennedy, Tennis player Billie Jean King, former Irish President Mary Robinson and British scientist Stephen Hawking. According to Mr. Obama, “These extraordinary men and women, these agents of change, remind us that excellence is not beyond our abilities, that hope lies around the corner, and that justice can still be won in the forgotten corners of this world.”
Previous recipients have included former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former South African President Nelson Mandela.
Desmond Tutu is renowned for his defense of human rights and the oppressed; he has also campaigned for the fight against AIDS, homophobia, poverty and racism. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, and the Gandhi Peace Prize in 2005.
After the fall of apartheid, Tutu headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He retired as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1996 and was made emeritus Archbishop of Cape Town, an honorary title that is unusual in the Anglican church. Since his retirement, Tutu has worked as a global activist on issues pertaining to democracy, freedom and human rights.
In 1994, Tutu coined the term Rainbow Nation as a metaphor for post-apartheid South Africa. The expression has since entered mainstream consciousness to describe South Africa’s ethnic diversity. In 2006, Tutu launched a global campaign, organized by Plan, to ensure that all children were registered at birth, as an unregistered child did not officially exist and was vulnerable to traffickers and during disaster. He openly condemned the xenophobic violence which occurred throughout South Africa in May 2008; he called on South Africans to end the violence as thousands of refugees have sought refuge in shelters.
Tutu is widely regarded as South Africa’s moral conscience and has been described by former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, as “sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humor, Desmond Tutu’s voice will always be the voice of the voiceless.”
On 18 July 2007 in South Africa, Desmond Tutu along with Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel, created the Elders- a group of world leaders to contribute their wisdom, leadership and integrity to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems.