African-American Congressional Gold Medal Recipients
By Eric Williams
As sad is it may be to admit, I have to say that it took more research than I originally anticipated just to come up with a list of all the African-Americans who have been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor. Incredibly, there were no online web sites dedicated to providing such information, which only served to lengthen the time it took to actually put this article together.
However, I have once again managed to go above and beyond the call of duty and have managed to compile the list of influential African-Americans to receive the nation’s highest civilian award and a short description of each recipient’s accomplishments.
The Congressional Gold Medal of Honor is the highest award which may be bestowed by the Legislative Branch of the United States government. The decoration, commonly referred to simply as the Congressional Gold Medal, is awarded to any individual who performs an outstanding deed or act of service to the security, prosperity, and national interest of the United States of America. The recipient need not be an American citizen. The Congressional Gold Medal of Honor is considered the United States Congress equivalent to the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Both decorations are generally considered to hold the same degree of prestige (though significantly fewer Gold Medals have been awarded), with the difference being that the Freedom Medal is personally awarded by the President of the United States and the Congressional Gold Medal is awarded in the name of the U.S. Congress.
Legislation bestowing the Congressional Gold Medal to a recipient must be co-sponsored by two thirds of the
membership of both the House of Representatives and the Senate before their respective committees will consider it.
The Congressional Gold Medal of Honor is created by the United States Mint to specifically commemorate the person and achievement for which the medal is awarded. Each medal is therefore different in appearance and there is no standard design for the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor.
The Congressional Gold Medal of Honor is also considered “non-portable”, meaning that the medal is not meant to be worn on a uniform or other clothing, but rather displayed much like a trophy. The Congressional Gold Medal of Honor is a completely separate decoration from the Medal of Honor which is a military award for extreme bravery in action. Another similiarly named decoration is the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, presented by NASA for extreme accomplishment to the mission of United States space exploration.
Now, with all of that out of the way, let’s look at the recipients, many of whom are easily recognizable names and some who may not be.
Roberto Clemente (1934-1972)
Although Clemente was born in Puerto Rico, he is still a man of color who is recognized as one of the most beloved and honored athletes to ever participate in any sport on U.S. soil. The career Pittsburgh Pirate who was the number one pick of the 1954 draft played in two World Series, batting .310 in 1960 and .414 in 1971. He was the National League Batting Champion four times, was awarded twelve Gold Gloves, selected National League MVP in 1966 and was chosen as the MVP in the 1971 World Series. Roberto Clemente died on December 31, 1972 in a plane crash while in the process of taking clothing, food and medical supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress on May, 14, 1973.
Marian Anderson (1897-1993)
Marian Anderson was born in Philadelphia in February of 1897 and gave the world over a half-century of sheer, unadulterated pleasure with a voice that has been described in glowing terms since her death in 1993.
Anderson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, a Congressional Gold Medal in 1978, the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award in 1984 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991. Anderson’s reputation rests not only on the quality of her voice but also on the dignity with which she asserted her right to be heard. Marian Anderson died in Portland, Oregon, on 8th April, 1993. Although the world has produced a multitude of talented singers, there will never be another Marian Anderson. Anderson was awarded her Congressional Gold Medal on March 8, 1977.
Joe Louis (1914-1981)
The “Brown Bomber” was born in Lexington, Alabama in 1914. Louis was the heavyweight champion of the world from 1937 to 1949. He served with the Army in World War II, mostly performing in boxing matches at military installations around the world in a morale-improving program. After losing his boxing title, he served as a greeter at
Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.
When Louis did not technically qualify for burial in Arlington National Cemetery, President Ronald Reagan waived the requirements and he was buried in Section 7-A, near the Tomb of the Unknowns, following his death on April 12, 1981.
At the time of Louis’ death Reagan said, “I was privileged and will always be grateful to have had Joe Louis as my friend. Joe fought his way to the top of professional boxing and into the hearts of millions of Americans. Out of the ring, he was a considerate and soft-spoken man; inside the ring, his courage, strength, and consummate skill
wrote a unique and unforgettable chapter in sports history. But Joe Louis was more than a sports legend – his career was an indictment of racial bigotry and a source of pride and inspiration to millions of white
and black people around the world. All of America mourns his loss, and we convey our sympathy to his family and friends. But we also share their pride in his professional achievements, his service to his country, and his strength of heart and spirit.”
With such a wonderful statement from the former president, need I say anything else? Louis was awarded his Congressional Gold Medal on August 26, 1982.
Roy Wilkins (1901-1981)
Roy Wilkins was a prominent civil rights activist in the United States from the 1930s to the 1970s. Wilkins graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in sociology in 1923 and worked as a journalist at The Minnesota Daily and became editor of St. Paul Appeal, an African-American newspaper. After he graduated he became the editor of the Kansas City Call. Wilkins was active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and between 1931 and 1934 was assistant NAACP secretary under Walter Francis White. When W. E. B. Du Bois left the organization in 1934, Wilkins replaced him as editor of Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP.
In 1955, Wilkins was named executive director of the NAACP and had an excellent reputation as an articulate spokesperson for the civil rights movement. In 1967, Wilkins was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Lyndon Johnson. During his tenure, the NAACP led the nation into the Civil Rights movement and spearheaded the efforts that led to significant civil rights victories, including Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1977, at the age of 76, Wilkins retired from the NAACP and was succeeded by Benjamin Hooks after a life of trying to build a better America for all people of color. Wilkins was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on August 9, 1985.
Jesse Owens (1913-1980)
Owens’ prolific accomplishments are so legendary that they have been etched into the memories of nearly every American over the age of 30.
When Owens finished competing in the 1936 Olympics, the African-American son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves had single-handedly crushed Adolph Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy. He gave four virtuoso performances, in winning gold medals in the 100- and 200- meter dashes, the long jump and on America’s 4×100 relay team. However, as beloved as Owens was, even by the hysterical German fans at those very same Olympics, he found that equality in the United States was still a long way off.
“When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus,” Owens said. “I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to
shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.” Owens was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on Nov. 9, 1988.
Colin Powell (1931- )
Powell is one of the few recipients on this list who is still alive. Born to Jamaican immigrants, Luther and Maud Powell, Colin was raised in the South Bronx and educated in New York City’s public school system. Following his graduation from high school, Powell attended City College of New York (CCNY) where he studied geology and participated in the ROTC. Powell graduated from CCNY in June 1958 and received a commission as an Army second lieutenant. Powell served his country as a professional soldier for 35 years, eventually reaching the rank of four-star general. During his service, he served as Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs as well as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Department of Defense’s highest military position. Following his retirement, Powell spent time on his career as a public speaker and penned his autobiography, “My American Journey,” with Joseph E. Persico. He also served as chairman of America’s Promise – The Alliance for Youth, a nonprofit organization aimed at getting Americans from all walks of life involved in the lives of America’s young people. Powell was nominated as Secretary of State on December 16, 2000 and, after being unanimously confirmed by the Senate, was sworn in as the first African American Secretary of State on January 20, 2001. Powell was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on August 23, 1991.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (1918 – )
Although Nelson Mandela was not born in the United States, the former president of South Africa has made contributions to all of mankind that take a back seat to no one. Mandela was the first President of South Africa to be elected in fully-representative democratic elections. Before his presidency he was a prominent anti-apartheid activist committed to non-violence, but later became involved in the planning of underground armed resistance activities. Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment, much of which he spent in a tiny prison cell on Robben Island, became one of the most widely publicized examples of apartheid’s injustices. Although the apartheid regime and nations sympathetic to it considered him and the ANC to be terrorist, Mandela’s support of the armed struggle against apartheid is now generally regarded as justified. Moreover, the policy of reconciliation Mandela pursued upon his release in 1990 facilitated a peaceful transition to democracy in South Africa. Having received over a hundred awards over four decades, Mandela is currently a celebrated elder statesman who continues to voice his opinion on topical issues. Mandela once said, “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Mandela was awarded the Congressional God Medal on July 29, 1998
Little Rock Nine
The Little Rock Nine were true heroes and heroines of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and received this country’s highest honor given to a civilian for their triumphant but non-violent trek through the racist mobs that mounted a life threatening effort to prevent their integrating Little Rock Central High School. It was 1957 and the United States of America was called on to stand up for the promises its forefathers had made in the US Constitution – that all men are created equal and have equal access. President Eisenhower sent troops to protect these nine teenagers who shouldered the burden of breaking through barriers built by generations of white U.S. residents who refused to see black people as deserving of equal access to an educational opportunity. These are the nine men and women, who as children, helped forge the path that helped America fulfill her promise of equality and justice for all.They were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on October 21, 1998.
In 1958, he became the first black student to graduate from Central High School. He graduated from Michigan
State University and served as Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban Affairs under President Jimmy
Carter. He currently is a managing partner and vice president of Lehman Brothers in Washington, D.C.
The only one of the nine still living in Little Rock, Elizabeth made a career of the U.S. Army that included work as a journalist. In 1974, she returned to the home in which she grew up and is now a part-time social worker and mother of two sons.
He graduated from Central in 1960, following a year in which Little Rock’s public high schools were ordered closed by the legislature to prevent desegregation. Today, he is an accountant with the U.S. Department of Defense and lives in Anaheim, Calif.
Dr. Terrence Roberts
Following the historic year at Central, his family moved to Los Angeles where he completed high school. He earned a doctorate degree and teaches at the University of California at Los Angeles and Antioch College. He also is a clinical psychologist.
Carlotta Walls Lanier
One of only three of the nine who eventually graduated from Central, she and Jefferson Thomas returned for their senior year in 1959. She graduated from Michigan State University and presently lives in Englewood, Colorado, where she is in real estate.
Minnijean Brown Trickey
She was expelled from Central High in February, 1958, after several incidents, including her dumping a bowl of chili on one of her antagonists in the school cafeteria. She moved with her husband to Canada during the Vietnam War protests of the 1960s and today is a writer and social worker in Ontario. Winterstar Productions is presently filming a documentary on her life.
Gloria Ray Karlmark
She graduated from Illinois Technical College and received a post-graduate degree in Stockholm, Sweden. She was a prolific computer science writer and at one time successfully published magazines in 39 countries. Now retired, she divides her time between homes in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and Stockholm, where her husband’s family lives.
She graduated from college, then made a career of teaching. She lives in Belleville, Illinois, where she is a volunteer in a program for abused women.
Melba Pattillo Beals
She is an author and former journalist for People magazine and NBC and lives in San Francisco
Rosa Parks (1913-2005)
Rosa Parks was an African American civil rights activist and seamstress whom the U.S. Congress dubbed the “Mother of the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement.” Parks is famous for her refusal on December 1, 1955 to obey a bus driver’s demand that she give up her seat to a white passenger. Her subsequent arrest and trial for this act of civil disobedience ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the largest and most successful mass movements against racial segregation in history, and launched Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the organizers of the boycott, to the forefront of the civil rights movement. Her role in American history earned her an iconic status in American culture, and her actions have left an enduring legacy for civil rights movements worldwide. Parks was awarded her Congressional Gold Medal on May 4, 1999.
Dr. Dorothy Irene Height (1912- )
Dorothy Height has been one of the most influential African-Americans in modern history. The administrator, teacher, and social activist was born in Richmond, Virginia, and while in high school, she was awarded a scholarship to Barnard College for her oratory skills but upon arrival, was denied entrance (at the time, the college only admitted two African-Americans per academic year and Dorothy had arrived after the other two admittees). She later pursued studies at New York University where she earned her master’s degree in psychology. Height began her career working as a caseworker with the New York City Welfare Department, but at the age of twenty-five, she began her career as a civil rights activist when she joined the National Council of Negro Women. She fought for equal rights for both African-Americans and women, and in 1944 she joined the national staff of the YWCA. She remained active with the organization until 1977, and while there, she developed leadership training programs and interracial and ecumenical education programs. In 1957, Height was named president of the National Council of Negro Women, a position she held until 1997. During the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Height organized “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” which brought together black and white women from the north and South to create a dialogue of understanding. Leaders of the United States regularly took her counsel, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Height also encouraged President Dwight D. Eisenhower to desegregate schools and President Lyndon B. Johnson to appoint African American women to positions in government. She has served on a number of committees, including as a consultant on African affairs to the secretary of state, the President’s Committee on the Employment of the Handicapped and the President’s Committee on the Status of Women. She has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Freedom From Want Award and the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. She has also been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. On Dec. 6, 2003 she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
Rev. Joseph Armstrong De Laine (1898-1974)
To the South, the United States Supreme Court’s decision to end segregation in the nation’s public schools was a calamity; for a middle-aged Methodist minister from Clarendon County, South Carolina, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong crusade. The Reverend Joseph Armstrong DeLaine was one of the true heroes in the civil rights struggle to break down the barriers of segregation. DeLaine’s commitment to his faith and to the cause of civil rights began at an early age. Expected to become a farmer or a craftsman, he enrolled instead at Allen University in Columbia, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1931. He combined preaching with teaching and was a public school teacher in South Carolina for 17 years. As a teacher at the Macedonia Baptist High School in Blackville, DeLaine saw that discrimination was not just racial. Despite his being a popular and effective teacher, the school’s trustees would not give him a permanent appointment unless he left the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Of this incident, he wrote: “A person who hates another because of looks is just as bad as one who stupidly hates anther’s faith in the church of his choice.” During his activist years in the 1950s, DeLaine received several death threats. Both his home and his church were burned to the ground, and he fought off an angry mob who came to remove him from his parsonage. The origins of the now famous Clarendon County School Segregation Case began in the late 1940s when DeLaine, along with other African-Americans, sought to secure equal educational opportunities for black children. Many participants in the movement lost their jobs. DeLaine, his two sisters and a niece were all fired from their teaching positions.
In 1950, for his own safety, he was moved form Clarendon County to another pastorate in Lake City. In May 1951, this first legal challenge to the validity of the “separate but equal” doctrine in public schools was heard in Charleston before a panel of three federal judges. Upon appeal to the United States Supreme Court, Briggs v. Elliott, as the case was known, was returned to the lower court for a review of South Carolina’s efforts to improve the conditions in black schools. Ultimately, Briggs v. Elliott became one of five cases which were considered and heard collectively under the name of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Success came at a price for DeLaine. In Lake City, he was subjected to a reign of terror that eventually persuaded him to leave the state. “I am not running from justice but injustice,” he told the FBI. He was relocated to upstate New York, where he organized and became pastor of an AME church in Buffalo. Appropriately, the new church was called the DeLaine-Waring AME Church, after the two men who had done so much to revolutionize the educational system of South Carolina. Forty-five years after his alleged crime and more than 25 years after his death, the Rev. Joseph Armstrong DeLaine – a civil rights pioneer whose early work led to the desegregation of America’s public schools-was cleared of all charges today by state officials here in a bittersweet and emotional ceremony. DeLaine was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on September 8, 2004.
Like the Reverend DeLaine and Harry and Eliza Briggs, Levi Pearson was an integral participant in the
struggle to equalize the educational experiences of white and black students in South Carolina.
Pearson, with the assistance of Reverend Joseph DeLaine, filed a lawsuit against the Clarendon
County School District to protest the inequitable treatment of black children.
As a result of his lawsuit, Pearson also suffered from acts of domestic terror, such as the
time gun shots were fired into his home, as well as economic consequences: local banks refused to provide
him with credit to purchase farming materials and area farmers refused to lend him equipment.
Although his case was ultimately dismissed on a technicality, Levi Pearson’s courage to stand up for
equalized treatment and funding for black students served as the catalyst for further attempts to
desegregate South Carolina schools, as he continued to fight against segregation practices and became
President of Clarendon County Chapter of the NAACP
Harry and Eliza Briggs.
As with Reverend DeLaine and Levi Pearson, the family of Harry and Eliza Briggs suffered consequences for their efforts: Harry and Eliza both were fired from their jobs and forced to move their family to Florida. Although they and their family suffered tremendously, Harry and Eliza Briggs were also pioneers leading the effort to desegregate America’s
public schools and were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on September 8, 2004.
Hall of Fame baseball player Jackie Robinson became Major League Baseball’s first African-American player in 1947 and a leading pioneer in the nation’s civil rights movement. Robinson was recognized posthumously by receiving the Congressional Gold Medal in 2005. Robinson, who played for the Dodgers from 1947-56, is just the second baseball player and fourth athlete to receive the prestigious honor, joining Hall of Fame big leaguer Roberto Clemente (1973), heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis (1982) and Olympic track and field star Jesse Owens (1988).