U.S.

U.S. President Barack Obama gets a hug from Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu after presenting him with the Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room at the White House in Washington August 12, 2009. The medal is the country's highest civilian honor. REUTERS/Jim Young

President Barack Obama on Wednesday awarded the nation's highest civilian honor to 16 recipients during a ceremony in the White House.

Obama started the ceremony saying The truest test of a person's life is what we do for one another. The president then went on to highlighting the achievements of the 16 luminaries in theater, sports, science, the humanities and politics.

The recipients of the Medal of Freedom did not set out to win this or any other award. They did not set out in pursuit of glory or fame or riches, the president continued. Rather they set out, guided by passion, committed to hard work, aided by persistence, often with few advantages but the gifts, grace and good name God gave them.

Film star Sidney Poitier, civil rights icon the Rev. Joseph Lowery and tennis legend Billie Jean King joined former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa in receiving the honor, the first such medals awarded by Obama.

Among the recipients were Senator Edward M. Kennedy, film star Sidney Poitier, civil rights icon the Rev. Joseph Lowery, tennis legend Billie Jean King, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.