President Barack Obama said this year's recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom made the world stronger, wiser, more beautiful and more humane.
Obama praised the 18 artists, activists and lawmakers receiving the award at a White House ceremony on Monday. Among the recipients are Ethel Kennedy, actress Meryl Streep and singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder.
Obama said Streep's talent is so immense that she "has no peers." He praised her work to promote empathy on and off the screen.
He called Wonder a musical prodigy whose warmth and humanity can be heard in every note of his music.
Others receiving the award included NBC journalist Tom Brokaw, author Isabel Allende and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the longest-serving member of Congress who is retiring at the end of the year.
The list also included Native American activist Suzan Harjo, actress Marlo Thomas, economist Robert Solow, golfer Charles Sifford, former Rep. Abner Mikva of Illinois and physicist Mildred Dresselhaus.
Posthumous medals went to six individuals, among them civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were slain in 1964 as they participated in a historic voter registration drive in Mississippi. Other posthumous awards were for choreographer Alvin Ailey and Reps. Patsy Mink of Hawaii and Edward Roybal of California, founder of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is reserved for individuals who have made "meritorious contributions" to U.S. security, world peace or cultural endeavors.
"This is one of my favorite events," Obama said from the East Room. "Once a year, we set aside this event to celebrate people who have made America stronger and wiser and more humane and more beautiful with our higher civilian honor."
Composer Stephen Sondheim was scheduled to receive the award, but Obama said he couldn't make it and will be included in next year's class of honorees.