WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush awarded the highest U.S. civilian honour on Monday to two figures in the push for racial equality: former NAACP leader Benjamin Hooks and “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee.
Hooks and Lee received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a White House ceremony that also honoured Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Cuban dissident Oscar Elias Biscet.
Other recipients included Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker; Brian Lamb, co-founder of the C-SPAN public affairs cable network; former Illinois Republican Rep. Henry Hyde; and Francis Collins, who led the Human Genome Project, the U.S.-led effort to map the human genome.
Hooks battled racial segregation throughout a career that saw him become Tennessee’s first black criminal court judge and serve on the Federal Communications Commission. He also headed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for 15 years.
Hooks was often treated with less respect than the prisoners of war he guarded during World War Two, Bush said.
“He never tired or faltered in demanding that our nation live up to its founding ideals of liberty and equality,” the president said.
Lee’s coming-of-age novel, published during the turmoil of the civil rights era, drew on her experiences witnessing racial discrimination in small-town Alabama, where she grew up as a neighbour and friend of author Truman Capote.
Inspired by a racially charged rape trial in the 1930s, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has sold over 30 million copies since it was published in 1960 and is on the reading list in many U.S. schools.
In 1961 it won Lee the Pulitzer Prize and in 1962 was made into a movie, which won actor Gregory Peck an Oscar.
Peck’s wife, Veronique, looked on from the front row as Bush draped the ornate medal over Lee’s shoulders.
The reclusive Lee, 81, has only published a handful of essays since the novel and has made few public remarks. She was taken to the stage in a wheelchair but stood throughout the 35-minute ceremony, smiling broadly.
“‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ has influenced the character of our country for the better,” Bush said. “It’s been a gift to the entire world.”
Bush also praised Johnson-Sirleaf, who was elected as Liberia’s first female president in 2005 after 14 years of civil war, and offered support to jailed Cuban dissident Biscet, whose son accepted the medal on his behalf.