WASHINGTON (CNN) - A pioneer, a preacher, an activist and an athlete are among 16 people who President Barack Obama will honor Wednesday with the Presidential Medal of Freedom - the nation's highest civilian honor.
The recipients, said the White House, were chosen for their relentless breaking of barriers and for setting "a standard to which we all should strive."
The annual award was created after World War II when President Harry Truman wanted to honor civilian service during the war.
The 16 who will be honored at a White House ceremony Wednesday afternoon are:
- Nancy Goodman Brinker: The death of her sister from breast cancer prompted Brinker to found Susan G. Komen for the Cure, which has now grown to become the world's leading breast cancer grass-roots organization.
- Pedro José Greer Jr.: Among the many hats Dr. Greer wears, he is the founder of Camillus Health Concern, an agency that provides medical care to more than 10,000 homeless patients every year in Miami, Florida.
- Stephen Hawking: The internationally-recognized theoretical physicist has spent his career making complex scientific concepts accessible to the layman, including penning the best-selling novel, "A Brief History of Time."
- Jack Kemp: The quarterback-turned-politician will be honored posthumously for the years he spent, leading up to his death in May, raising awareness of and encouraging development in underserved communities.
- Sen. Edward Kennedy: During his 46 years as a lawmaker, Kennedy has called health care reform the "cause of his life," championing nearly every health care bill enacted by Congress in the last five decades. However, the ailing Kennedy will miss Wednesday's ceremony due to his ongoing battle with brain cancer, the White House said. His sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who died on Tuesday, also received the Medal of Honor in 1984 from President Ronald Reagan.
- Billie Jean King: With her victory over Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match in 1973, and in the years since, King has champion gender equality not only in sports but in all areas of public life.
- Rev. Joseph Lowery: With Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights icon co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a leading civil rights organization, and has continued to highlight the cause worldwide, including speaking out forcefully against apartheid in South Africa until its end in 1994.
- Joe Medicine Crow-High Bird: The last living Plains Indian war chief and author of seminal works in Native American history is also the last person alive to have received direct oral testimony from a participant in the Battle of the Little Bighorn: his grandfather, a scout for Gen. George Custer.
- Harvey Milk: The first openly gay person elected into office in a major U.S. city, Milk is revered as a pioneer of the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender civil rights movement. He will be honored posthumously as well.
- Sandra Day O'Connor: At a time when women rarely entered the legal profession, O'Connor graduated Stanford Law School third in her class and went on to become the first woman ever to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.
- Sidney Poitier: The first African-American to win a Best Actor Academy Award, Poitier also broke ground by insisting that the crew in one of his films be at least 50 percent African-American and by starring in the first mainstream movie portraying interracial marriage.
- Chita Rivera: The winner of two Tony Awards, Rivera was also the first Hispanic to receive the Kennedy Center Honor, awarded annually for exemplary lifetime achievement in the performing arts.
- Mary Robinson: Since ending her term as the first female president of Ireland, Robinson has headed Realizing Rights, an initiative that ensures that human rights is not forgotten as nations chart a course toward globalization.
- Janet Davison Rowley: Her work on chromosome abnormalities in human leukemia and lymphoma has led to dramatically improved survival rates for previously incurable cancers.
- Desmond Tutu: An Anglican archbishop and a leading anti-apartheid activist, Tutu is widely regarded as "South Africa's moral conscience" and chaired the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission when it was created in 1995 to discover and reveal past wrongdoing.
- Muhammad Yunus: A Bangladeshi economist and winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, Yunus pioneered the use of micro-loans to provide credit to the poor without collateral - a successful model that has been emulated worldwide.
Updated: 10:35 a.m.