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Chita Rivera, Sidney Poitier receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

August 13, 2009 | 11:07 am

Chita Rivera President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor to Tony Award-winning actress-singer-dancer Chita Rivera, Oscar-winning actor Sidney Poitier and 14 other "agents of change" on Wednesday at a ceremony at the White House.

The award is the nation's top civilian honor.

Rivera, who originated the role of Anita in "West Side Story," won the Tony Award for best actress in a musical for 1993's "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and 1984's "The Rink." The 76-year-old actress last appeared on Broadway in 2005 in her autobiographical show "Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life."

"Dolores Conchita Figueroa del Rivero knows that adversity comes with a difficult name," Obama said of the actress, the first Latina to receive the Medal of Freedom. She was  honored for "breaking barriers and inspiring a generation of women to follow in her footsteps."

Poitier, 82, received an Academy Award in 1962 for leading actor for his portrayal of a former GI in "Lillies of the Field," the first African American man to receive an Oscar. He was nominated for a Tony Award for his role as Walter Lee Younger in the 1960 Broadway production of "A Raisin in the Sun." Poitier, the White House said, "left an indelible mark on American culture"  and "would advance the nation's dialogue on race and respect."

Also honored were Nancy Goodman Brinker, founder of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure; Pedro Jose Greer Jr., founder of Camillus Health Concern and St. John Bosco Clinic in Florida; physicist and mathematician Stephen Hawking; Jack Kemp, the 1996 Republican vice presidential nominee, who died this year at age 73; Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts; tennis star Billie Jean King, 65; civil rights leader Rev. Joseph Lowery, 87; Joe Medicine Crow, 95, the last living Plains Indian war chief; Harvey Milk, slain gay activist and San Francisco supervisor;  former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, 79; Mary Robinson, 65, the first female president of Ireland; geneticist and cancer researcher Janet Davison Rowley; South African archibishop Desmond Tutu, 78; and Bangladeshi economist and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Muhammad Yunus, 69. (Update: An earlier version of this report omitted Sen. Edward Kennedy from the list of recipients)

-- Lisa Fung

Photo: Chita Rivera receives the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press


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