In a joyful White House ceremony on Tuesday, President Barack Obama bestowed 21 influential artists, sports stars, scientists, and philanthropists with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest national honor awarded to civilians.
This week’s inductees represented the largest-ever class of recipients, capping off Obama’s eight-year term with the most medals awarded by any singular president in U.S. history. Among the honorees were actors Tom Hanks, Robert DeNiro, Cicely Tyson, Robert Redford, and Ellen DeGeneres; computer science pioneers Margaret Hamilton and Grace Hopper; musicians Diana Ross and Bruce Springsteen; and basketball legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan.
President Obama clearly relished the positivity of the ceremony after a long and tumultuous political election season, peppering his introductions with his characteristic sense of humor. He first addressed Michael Jordan as “the actor from Space Jam” before qualifying that the athlete “was more than just an Internet meme.”
Despite their various backgrounds and walks of life, all of the Medal of Freedom recipients did take a moment before the ceremony to participate in a current Internet meme sensation, the “Mannequin Challenge.” The video of the many stars frozen still in the East Wing of the White House quickly spread through social media sites, which 91% of American adults check regularly.
The awards ceremony also honored philanthropists and activists whose work has aligned closely with President Obama’s social agenda, including Bill and Melinda Gates for their charitable foundation, Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padron, and Elouise Cobell, a Native American activist who passed away in 2011.
“It’s useful, when you think about this incredible collection of people, to realize this is what makes us the greatest nation on earth,” Obama said during the ceremony. “Not because of our differences, but because in our differences we find something in common to share. And what a glorious gift that is.”