October 6, 2015
By Steven Wishnia
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a Nigerian-born cancer researcher, the Nation magazine, and North Carolina activist minister William Barber received the Roosevelt Institute’s Four Freedoms Awards.
The institute, which has given the awards annually since 1982, is dedicated to promoting the economic and social ideas of Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt, “but for the 21st century,” said director Anna Roosevelt. They go to people “whose achievements have demonstrated a commitment to those principles which President Roosevelt proclaimed in his historic speech to Congress on January 6, 1941”: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
“Those words were distinctly personal to my grandfather,” Roosevelt said. “He wrote them himself. He spoke them deliberately.”
Justice Ginsburg received the Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom Medal “for her decades as a champion of fairness, compassion, and equality for all Americans in the eyes of the law.” In the 1970s, before she was appointed to the federal bench, her litigation pioneered the legal principles used against discrimination against women. She said that work was inspired by the concept of freedom from want, noting that she’d heard the Four Freedoms speech on the radio when she was seven years old.
Arthur Mitchell, who founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, won the Freedom of Speech and Expression Medal “for using art to transcend boundaries.” “Anyone who does not have the arts in their life is living in a desert,” he said, adding that the arts bring “hope,” “excellence,” and “elegance.”
“Freedom from want goes beyond the traditional political and civil rights,” said Dr. Olufunmilayo Olopade, who received that medal. Dividing her work between Chicago’s South Side and Nigeria, she specializes in studying how individual variations in certain genes increase the risk of getting particularly aggressive forms of breast cancer, including discovering BCRA mutations prevalent among black women. She called that work “genetic justice.”
The Nation, “the longest-running progressive publication in America,” won the Freedom from Fear Medal. From the McCarthy era through the post-9/11 era, editor/publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel said, “fear is a weapon to destroy civil liberties.”
The Freedom of Worship Medal went to the Rev. Dr. William Barber, organizer of the Moral Mondays protests in North Carolina. He has created a “moral framework” for campaigns against “the crucifixion of the disadvantaged,” said Penda Hair of the Advancement Project.
Barber described Moral Mondays as an “anti-racism, anti-poverty, pro-labor, pro-justice, pro-peace” fusion movement, “grounded in the prophetic ethos of love and a commitment to the Constitution.” It’s seeking a “Third Reconstruction,” he preached, where “the poor can be lifted, the immigrant can be welcomed, the LGBT people can be equal… and black lives matter, because if they don’t, then no lives matter.”