Barbra Streisand, Stephen Spielberg receive U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom
Other entertainers honoured: James Taylor, Stephen Sondheim, Itzhak Perlman, the Estefans
President Barack Obama recognized 17 Americans with the nation's highest civilian award on Tuesday, including giants of the entertainment industry such as Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg, baseball legends Willie Mays and Yogi Berra, and politicians and activists, including a Japanese-American civil rights leader.
"Today we celebrate some extraordinary people: innovators, artists and leaders who contribute to America's strength as a nation," Obama said.
Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to filmmaker Steven Spielberg, musicians Gloria and Emilio Estefan, singer James Taylor, composer Stephen Sondheim, violinist Itzhak Perlman and actress Barbra Streisand, who won an Academy award for her performance in the classic film musical, "Funny Girl."
The sports honorees were Baseball Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Yogi Berra. Berra, who died in September, was a famed New York Yankees' catcher, an 18-time All-Star and 10-time World Series champion. The president noted that Berra also served in World War II. Mays, a centerfielder for the New York and San Francisco Giants, was among the first African-American players in Major League Baseball.
"It's because of giants like Willie that someone like me could even think about running for president," Obama said.
Posthumous recipients included Japanese-American civil rights leader Minoru Yasui, who challenged the constitutionality of a military curfew order during World War II on the grounds of racial discrimination and spent months in solitary confinement during the legal battle, and Indian tribal advocate Billy Frank Jr., who led "fish-ins"— similar to sit-ins— during the tribal "fish wars" of the 1960s and 1970s.
The politicians bestowed the honour are Democrats: Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who has championed equal pay and women's health during her 44 years of public service; former Rep. Lee Hamilton from Indiana, a longtime advocate of American national security and international relations; and the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm from New York. Chisholm was the first African-American woman elected to Congress and a founding member of what would become the Congressional Black Caucus.
Of Hamilton, Obama said he helped guide the nation through the Cold War and had a consistent commitment to bipartisanship.
Among the other honorees were Katherine G. Johnson, a NASA mathematician, whose calculations influenced every major space program, including the flight of the first American into space, and William Ruckelshaus, a former chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, who shaped the guiding principles of the agency, including a nationwide ban on the pesticide DDT and an agreement with the automobile industry to require catalytic converters to reduce automobile pollution.