Washington: US President Barack Obama bestowed the highest US civilian honour to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and US Senator Edward Kennedy and 14 others at the White House on Wednesday.
"Let them stand as an example here in the US and around the world of what we can achieve in our lives," Obama said during a ceremony to hand out the Medal of Freedom.
Obama honoured South Africa`s Tutu for his life-long stand against apartheid, British physicist Stephen Hawking for his advancements, as well as Billie Jean King, the tennis star who forever altered the role of woman in sports, and African American actor Sidney Poitier.
"The men and women we honour today have led very different lives and assumed many different careers," Obama said.
The other recipients included micro-banking founder Mohammed Yunus; Mary Robinson, the first female president of Ireland; and Sandra Day O`Connor, the former US Supreme Court justice who became the first woman to serve on the bench.
More than 20,000 people have been awarded the Medal of Freedom since it was created by former president Harry Truman in 1945.
Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected politician in the United States, and former Republican congressman and vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp were honoured posthumously.
Other recipients include US health-care advocates, an American-Indian tribal chief and the Hispanic actress Chita Rivera. Long-time US civil rights leader Reverend Joseph Lowery was honoured.
Nancy Goodman Brinker, whose organization is the largest breast cancer awareness group, as well as Doctor Pedro Jose Greer and American Indian chief Joe Medicine Crow-High Bird, were given medals.
Doctor Janet Davison Rowley, whose breakthrough in determining a key cause of leukemia and other cancers was among the most important medical breakthroughs of the past century, also received a Medal of Freedom.
Kennedy, whose sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver died on Tuesday, did not attend the ceremony.