Charles Sifford withstood a torrent of racial slurs and death threats more than five decades ago to break the color barrier in professional golf, becoming the first African-American to earn a PGA tour card.
On Monday, a beaming Sifford sat center stage in the ornate East Room at the White House as President Barack Obama, the first African-American president – and an avid golfer – lauded the Charlotte, N.C., native as one of the country’s “trailblazers who bent the arc of our nation toward justice.”
Minutes later, Sifford was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, along with 17 other Americans, including singer Stevie Wonder, actress Meryl Streep and slain civil rights activists James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Henry Schwerner, who were posthumously honored.
First lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, members of Congress and outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder were among those in the audience for what Obama called “one of my favorite events.”
“Once a year, we set aside this event to celebrate people who have made America stronger and wiser, and more humane, and more beautiful,” the president said.
In a 75-minute ceremony, Obama paid tribute to each recipient, including Sifford, whom the White House said “just wanted to play golf” and persistently challenged discrimination in the face of constant insults.
“On the tour, Charlie was sometimes banned from clubhouse restaurants. Folks threatened him, shouted slurs from the gallery,” Obama said.
And, Obama noted, hostile fellow pros sometimes kicked Sifford’s ball into the rough.
“Charlie’s laughing about that,” Obama said, prompting a round of laughter as he added, “My ball’s always in the rough.”
Sifford often has been compared to pioneering baseball player Jackie Robinson. But, Obama noted, with golf a solitary sport, Sifford didn’t have teammates to lean on. He had his late wife, Rose, Obama said.
“And he had plenty of guts and grit and that trademark cigar,” Obama said.
Sifford had won six National Negro Opens in the 1950s, and by the time the Professional Golfers’ Association of America revoked its “Caucasian-only” clause in 1961, “most of his best golf was behind him,” Obama said. He still won on the tour twice, both after age 45.
“But it was never just about the wins,” Obama said. “As Charlie says, ‘I wasn’t just trying to do this for me; I was trying to do it for the world.’”
Other trailblazers were honored, including civil rights activists Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, who were killed in Mississippi by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964. Family members accepted on their behalf, earning a long and sustained round of applause.
Obama helped Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert Kennedy, to the front of the stage for her award, honoring her human rights advocacy and the founding of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.
“You don’t mess with Ethel,” Obama said, adding that she’s “gone to extraordinary lengths to build support for the causes close to her heart.”
That included pouring a bucket of ice water over her head this summer to raise money for ALS research. Kennedy nominated Obama, he said, but he chose to write a check.
“I grew up in Hawaii,” he said. “I don’t like pouring ice water on top of my head.”
The other recipients honored Monday: choreographer Alvin Ailey, honored posthumously for founding the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; Chilean author Isabel Allende; former “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw; Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Mildred Dresselhaus; Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the longest serving member of Congress; Native American writer and activist Suzan Harjo; former Illinois congressman Abner Mikva, who also served as chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and White House counsel for President Bill Clinton; former Hawaii congresswoman Patsy Takemoto Mink; the late Edward R. Roybal, the first Mexican-American to be elected to the U.S. House of Representaties from California in nearly a century and founder of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials: economist Robert Solow and actress Marlo Thomas.
Composer Stephen Sondheim was unable to attend and will be recognized in 2015, Obama said.