President Gerald Ford and Civil Rights Leader John Lewis Named Recipients of 2001 Profile in Courage Award

For Immediate Release: May 5, 2001
Further information: Tom McNaught (617) 514-1662

Boston: Former U.S. President Gerald Ford, who presided over the country’s recovery from what he called "our long national nightmare" and who made a controversial decision of conscience to pardon former President Richard M. Nixon, has been named the recipient of the 2001 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.

Ford was chosen as this year’s recipient of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation’s prestigious award for political courage by a distinguished, bipartisan committee of national political and community leaders including presidential historian David McCullough; U.S. Senator Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi); U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine); U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA); John Seigenthaler, Founder of the First Amendment Center; David Burke, former president of CBS News; Paul G. Kirk, Jr., Chairman of the Board of Directors of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation; Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children's Defense Fund; Antonia Hernandez, President of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund; Elaine Jones, Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund; and Caroline Kennedy, president of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.

The Profile in Courage Award Committee also singled out civil rights legend and U.S. Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) for a special Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement. The award presentation marks the 40th anniversary of the 1961 Freedom Rides for which John Lewis risked his life and was beaten severely by mobs for challenging segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. Lewis, who at age 23, was also one of the principal organizers of the March on Washington in 1963, is being recognized for a lifetime career marked by extraordinary courage, leadership, vision and commitment to universal human rights. The presentation of a Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement is unprecedented.

Ford and Lewis will be presented the Profile in Courage Award and the Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement by Caroline Kennedy at a Monday, May 21, 2001 ceremony at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston.

The John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award is presented annually to an elected official who has withstood strong opposition from constituents, powerful interest groups or adversaries to follow what she or he believes is the right course of action. The award is named for President Kennedy's 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, which recounts the stories of eight U.S. Senators who risked their careers to fight for what they believed in. The Profile in Courage Award was created by the Kennedy Library Foundation in 1989 to honor President Kennedy’s commitment and contribution to public service. It is presented on or near May 29, in celebration of President Kennedy's birthday.

"President Kennedy felt his greatest admiration for those in politics who had the courage to make decisions of conscience without fear of the consequences," said Caroline Kennedy, President of the Kennedy Library Foundation. "President Ford presided over this nation during one of its darkest hours, and in an effort to heal a divided nation, he made a very difficult decision that many believe may have cost him the presidency. Congressman John Lewis is an unwritten chapter in my father’s book, Profiles in Courage. His life has been distinguished by extraordinary courage and devotion to an integrated society and ours is a far better nation because of him. In presenting these awards, the Kennedy Library Foundation hopes to make Americans aware of the courage of these great public servants, and to inspire other elected officials to follow their conscience regardless of political cost."

Described by one recipient as the "Nobel in Government," the Profile in Courage Award is accompanied by a $25,000 stipend and a sterling silver lantern representing a beacon of hope. The lantern was designed by Edwin Schlossberg, Inc., and crafted by Tiffany & Co. In selecting a recipient, the Profile in Courage Award Committee considers elected officials who have demonstrated the kind of political courage described by John F. Kennedy in Profiles in Courage.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Kennedy wrote: "The true democracy, living and growing and inspiring, puts its faith in the people – faith that the people will not simply elect men who will represent their views ably and faithfully, but also elect men who will exercise their conscientious judgment – faith that the people will not condemn those whose devotion to principle leads them to unpopular courses, but will reward courage, respect honor and ultimately recognize right."

President Gerald Ford, 2001 Profile in Courage Award Recipient

On August 9, 1974, Vice President Gerald Rudolph Ford became the 38th President of the United States. Ford's elevation to the nation’s highest political office followed a long, distinguished career in the U.S. House of Representatives where he represented the Fifth District of Michigan for 25 years, and served as House Minority Leader for eight years. He served as Vice President of the United States following the forced resignation of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew who had pleaded nolo contendere to a charge of income tax evasion. He became President of the United States following President Richard Nixon’s resignation during impeachment proceedings as a result of his involvement in the Watergate affair and other abuses of power and violations of the civil liberties of Americans. When Ford became president, his record of decency and integrity went far toward healing the wounds of Watergate.

On Sept. 8, 1974, President Ford granted a "full, free and absolute pardon" to former President Nixon "for all offenses against the United States which he ... has committed or may have committed or taken part in" while he was president. Nixon accepted the pardon.

In his autobiography, Ford wrote of the pardon, "I simply was not convinced that the country wanted to see an ex-president behind bars. We are not a vengeful people; forgiveness is one of the roots of the American tradition. And Nixon, in my opinion, had already suffered enormously. His resignation was an implicit admission of guilt, and he would have to carry forever the burden of his disgrace. But I wasn’t motivated primarily by sympathy for his plight or by concern over the state of his health. It was the state of the country’s health at home and around the world that worried me."

The response from the press, members of Congress, and the general public was overwhelmingly negative. The critics contended that the pardon was premature because it precluded possible indictment that might have led to answers to some of the remaining Watergate questions. Appearing before the U. S. House Committee on the Judiciary, President Ford explained under oath, in the only sworn congressional testimony ever given by a sitting president, that there were no deals connected with the pardon. He said he hoped his action would begin the process of healing the presidency and a deeply wounded nation.

In November 1976, President Ford lost the White House to Jimmy Carter in one of the closest elections in American history. Many historians believe Ford’s pardon of Nixon contributed to his defeat. Many have also come to believe that President Ford was the right man at the right time who played a leadership role in helping to restore the American people’s trust in their government.

Congressman John Lewis, Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement Recipient

Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) was born the son of sharecroppers on February 21, 1940 outside of Troy, Alabama. At an early age, Lewis developed an unwavering commitment to the Civil Rights Movement. As a student, he organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville Tennessee. In 1961, Lewis volunteered to participate in the Freedom Rides, which were organized to challenge segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South. Lewis risked his life and was beaten severely by mobs for participating in the Freedom Rides.

At age 23, John Lewis became chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a position he held from 1963 to 1966. SNCC had been formed three years earlier with the support of Ella Baker and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, among others. Its youthful members, impatient with the slower pace of more established civil rights activists and organizations, concentrated on grass roots organizing in the South. SNCC was largely responsible for the sit-ins and other activities of students in the struggle for civil rights.

Despite his youth, John Lewis became a recognized leader in the Movement. At the March on Washington in August 1963, John Lewis’ intended remarks had to be revised at the last minute because some of the other leaders thought them too inflammatory and critical of President Kennedy and Congress. Nonetheless, his speech drew a tremendous response from the marchers.

In 1964, John Lewis coordinated SNCC efforts to organize voter registration drives and community action programs during the "Mississippi Freedom Summer." The following year, Lewis led one of the most dramatic nonviolent protests of the Movement. Along with fellow activist Hosea Williams, Lewis led over 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965. In a confrontation that became known as "Bloody Sunday," Alabama state troopers attacked the civil-rights marchers whose only offense was to protest barriers to black voter registration. That fateful march and a subsequent march between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

John Lewis’ first electoral success came in 1981 when he was elected to the Atlanta City Council. He resigned from the Council in 1986 to run for Congress. Elected to Congress in November 1986, Lewis represents Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District.

Despite more than 40 arrests, physical attacks and brutal beatings, John Lewis has never waivered in his devotion to the philosophy of non-violence. He describes himself as "a coalition builder" who will never compromise his belief in an integrated society. Despite widespread criticisms and potential political implications for his reelection bid in 1996, Lewis opposed Louis Farrakhan’s Million-Man March in 1995 because he saw it as an effort to "resegregate America."

As a Member of the U.S. Congress, John Lewis continues to dedicate his life to protecting human rights, securing personal dignity, and building what he calls "The Beloved Community." A skillful practitioner of conciliation and bringing people together, Lewis has been unwavering in his resistance to pressure to compromise his lifetime commitment to racial justice, equality, and integration.

Past recipients of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award are former U.S. Congressman Carl Elliott, Sr. of Alabama; former U.S. Congressman Charles Weltner of Georgia; former Governor of Connecticut Lowell Weicker, Jr.; former Governor of New Jersey James Florio; U.S. Congressman Henry Gonzalez of Texas; former U.S. Congressman Michael Synar of Oklahoma; former Calhoun County, Georgia School Superintendent Corkin Cherubini; Circuit Court Judge of Montgomery County, Alabama Charles Price; Garfield County, Montana Attorney Nickolas Murnion; co-recipients U.S. Senators John McCain of Arizona and Russell Feingold of Wisconsin; and California State Senator Hilda Solis.

In December, 1998, a special John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award was presented to the Irish Peacemakers -- eight political leaders of Northern Ireland [John Hume, Social Democratic and Labour Party; David Trimble, Ulster Unionist Party; Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein; John Alderdice, Alliance Party of Northern Ireland; David Ervine, Progressive Unionist Party; Monica McWilliams, Northern Ireland Women's Coalition; Gary McMichael, Ulster Democratic Party; and Malachi Curran, Northern Ireland Labour Party] and former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, the American chairman of the peace talks, – in recognition of the extraordinary political courage they demonstrated in negotiating the historic Good Friday Peace Agreement. The presentation of the Profile in Courage Award to a non-American was unprecedented.

The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum is the nation’s official memorial to President John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States. The Kennedy Library is a presidential library administered by the National Archives and Records Administration and supported, in part, by the Kennedy Library Foundation, a non-profit organization. The Kennedy Library and the Kennedy Library Foundation seek to promote, through educational and community programs, a greater appreciation and understanding of American politics, history, and culture, the process of governing and the importance of public service.