Filmmaker and humanitarian Steven Spielberg was named today to be the recipient of the 2009 Liberty Medal.
During this morning's announcement at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center, Spielberg was praised not just for such award-winning films as Schindler's List, Amistad and Saving Private Ryan, which explore the human struggle for freedom from tyranny, but for the founding of the Shoah Foundation, which has preserved the stories of thousands of Holocaust survivors.
The prize will be presented Oct. 8 at the center by its chairman, former President Bill Clinton, along with a check for $100,000.
Clinton, who arrived in North Korea today on a surprise mission to win the release of two imprisoned American journalists, said in a prepared statement that he looked forward "to bestowing this award on my friend Steven Spielberg."
Spielberg, who spent part of his childhood in Haddon Township, is probably best known for films such as Jaws, ET, and the Indiana Jones series.
But while interviewing Holocaust survivors for best picture-winner Schindler's List, he became convinced these stories had to be preserved.
So, investing much of his own personal wealth, he started the Shoah Foundation to capture survivor's memories on video, explained foundation board member Stephen A. Cozen, also founder and chairman of the Philadelphia-based law firm Cozen O'Connor.
Spielberg's project has proved to be a "magnificent example of his humanity and goodness," said Cozen, who spoke this morning after Linda Johnson, the Constitution Center's CEO, announced the award.
"The collection - the largest archive of its kind in the world - now stands with 52,000 videos with 105,000 hours of testimony in 32 languages, representing 56 countries," acccording to a statement released by the Constitution Center.
After documenting the Nazi Holocaust, the foundation began working with the Clinton Foundation to record testimony of survivors of the Rwandan genocide.
"It will be a great pleasure for me to receive this award," Spielberg said in a prepared statement. "I am thrilled to be honored by my dear friend, President Clinton, and to be recognized by an organization unprecedented in its devotion to the most revelant and significant document in our nation's history.
"It's truly humbling to be added to the distinguished list of past recipients, a group of men and women whom I deeply admire for the commitment to the educating the world about the importance of freedom and the blessings of liberty."
Clinton himself was an honoree in 2006, along with former President George H.W. Bush, for their fund-raising work on behalf of victims of a tsunami in Southeast Asia and of Hurricane Katrina.
Last year, the honor went to Mikhael Gorbachev, whose reforms as head of the Soviet Union led to the end of the Cold War as democracy spread through Russia and its former satellite states.
In 2007, the prize went to U2 lead singer Bono and the organization he cofounded to fight proverty and illness in Africa.
The prize was created by a group called We the People 2000 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the U.S Constitution in 1988.
The first Liberty Medal was awarded in 1989 to Lech Walesa, the labor leader who bravely pushed for reforms in Poland.
The Constitution Center has hosted the presentation since 2003, when the award went to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. A few years ago, the center took over the selection process as well.
Six recipients later won the Nobel Peace Prize, according to the center's Web site, www.constitutioncenter.org.
Past winners2008: Former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
2007: U2 lead singer Bono and his advocacy organization Debt AIDS Trade Africa (DATA).
2006: Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
2005: Ukrainian President Viktor A. Yushchenko.
2004: Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
2003: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
2002: Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
2001: U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
2000: Scientists James D. Watson and Francis H.C. Crick.
1999: South Korean President Kim Dae Jung.
1998: Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.
1997: CNN International.
1996: Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and King Hussein of Jordan.
1995: Sadako Ogata, U.N. high commissioner for refugees.
1994: Czech President Vaclav Havel.
1993: South Africa leaders F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela.
1992: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
1991: Former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias and Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).
1990: Former President Jimmy Carter.
1989: Polish President Lech Walesa.