The John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award was created in 1989 by members of President Kennedy’s family to honor President John F. Kennedy and to recognize and celebrate the quality of political courage that he admired most.
The award recognizes a public official (or officials) at the federal, state or local level whose actions demonstrate the qualities of politically courageous leadership in the spirit of Profiles in Courage, President Kennedy’s 1957 Pulitzer prize-winning book, which recounts the stories of eight U.S. Senators who risked their careers by embracing unpopular positions for the greater good.
Here are past winners of this prestigious award:
1990 – Carl Elliot, Sr.
Carl Elliott, a former United States Congressman from Jasper, Alabama, was honored for his participation in the passage of the historic National Defense Education Act of 1958, which made a college education accessible to all, regardless of race or economic status.
1991 – Charles Weltner – Rather than “compromise with hate” and be forced to support the candidacy of Lester Maddox, an advocate of segregation, Congressman Charles Longstreet Weltner (D-Ga) placed principle above ambition and withdrew from his own race for re-election.
1992 – Lowell Weicker, Jr. – In 1991, Governor Lowell Weicker of Connecticut shocked many residents of the state by proposing a first-time-ever personal income tax as part of his fiscal year 1992 budget package. Despite intense political and public criticism, threats to his safety, and large-scale bitter protests, he persevered and finally prevailed in this fight.
1993 – James Florio – In 1990, under Governor Florio’s leadership, New Jersey passed the strictest gun control law in the nation, banning the sale and severely restricting the possession of assault weapons in the state.
1994 – Henry Gonzalez
Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez of Texas, Chairman of the House Banking Committee, launched a series of dramatic hearings on the savings and loan crisis, which resulted in far-reaching legislation to clean up the mess and reform the industry.
1995 – Michael Synar – As a leader of the anti-smoking forces in Congress, Synar introduced legislation to restrict advertising of tobacco products and to include tobacco in the list of products regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and passed a bill requiring a warning label on smokeless tobacco. He also led the campaign for public land reform and called on ranchers and mining and timber companies to pay fair market value for their use of federal lands. In addition, Synar single-handedly challenged the 1985 Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction plan and the legality of key provisions of the bill, which were later declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
1996 – Corkin Cherubini – Corkin F. Cherubini, Ed.D. dismantled long-standing academic tracking practices that he believed amounted to educational apartheid. In 1992, Mr. Cherubini, who taught junior and senior English literature for 22 years in Calhoun County, was elected to a four-year term as superintendent of schools. Once in charge, he called attention to the district’s practice of academic tracking which Mr. Cherubini believed was created to circumvent desegregation and to establish a lower set of expectations for most black students.
1997 – Charles Price
Judge Charles Price, a circuit court judge in Montgomery, Alabama, was honored in 1997 for his devotion to the principles of the American Constitution that compelled him to rule that a fellow circuit court judge’s courtroom display of the Ten Commandments for religious purposes was a violation of the First Amendment.
1998 – Nickolas Murnion – Garfield County Attorney Nickolas Murnion successfully prosecuted Montana’s fiercely anti-government “Freemen” for advocating terrorism, and rallied his small community to stand up to the extremist hate group.
1998 – Peacemakers of N. Ireland
A special John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award was presented to eight political leaders of Northern Ireland and the American chairman of the peace talks in recognition of the extraordinary political courage they demonstrated in negotiating the historic Good Friday Peace Agreement in April, 1998. The presentation of the Profile in Courage Award to a non-American was unprecedented at the time.
1999 – Russell Feingold – With the introduction of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation, Senators McCain and Feingold worked relentlessly for radical campaign finance reform. Senator Feingold, during his 1998 re-election bid, refused all offers of “soft money,” although the legislation had previously failed in the Senate. Senator Feingold narrowly won re-election by a margin of 51 percent to 49 percent.
1999 – John McCain
Two U.S. Senators who reached across the aisle to join forces in a bi-partisan effort to reform the way political campaigns are financed were the recipients of the 1999 Profile in Courage Award. With the introduction of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation, Senators McCain and Feingold worked relentlessly for radical campaign finance reform, especially a ban on “soft money.” Senator McCain’s position put him in direct conflict with his party’s leadership. In March 2002, after years of protracted debate spanning several legislative sessions, McCain-Feingold, in the form of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, was enacted into law. Partisans continue to challenge elements of the law in Federal court.
2000 – Hilda Solis – California State Senator Hilda Solis overcame the strong opposition of a former governor and the California business community to win environmental protections for minority communities. Arguing that polluting projects were disproportionately located near minority and low-income neighborhoods, Solis successfully marshaled support for her environmental justice bill.
2001 – Gerald Ford – President Gerald Ford was honored for his courage in making a controversial decision of conscience to pardon former President Richard M. Nixon. On September 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.
2001 – John Lewis – Congressman John Lewis was honored with an unprecedented Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement for his extraordinary courage, leadership and commitment to civil rights. Congressman Lewis’ efforts promoting civil rights started at an early age. As a student he organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, he was also Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a student group for civil rights. Along with fellow activist Hosea Williams, Lewis led a 600-strong demonstration that exploded into a confrontation when Alabama State Troopers attacked marchers. Known as “Bloody Sunday,” that fateful march and the subsequent march between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As a member of the U.S. Congress representing Georgia’s fifth congressional district, John Lewis continues to dedicate his life to protecting human rights.
2002 – Public Servants of September 11
On May 6, 2002, a special and unprecedented John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for Public Service was awarded to the thousands of selfless public servants who demonstrated extraordinary courage and heroism in response to the tragic events of September 11. In defining public servants, the Profile in Courage Award Committee included all private citizens who, at a time of grave challenge to their country, acted courageously to save the lives of others.
2002 – Dean Koldenhoven – Dean Koldenhoven, former mayor of Palos Heights, Illinois, was honored for his political courage in speaking out against religious discrimination and calling for tolerance within his community. Dean Koldenhoven lost his bid for re-election; many believed his defeat was due to the controversy surrounding his defense of religious freedom and tolerance.
2002 – Kofi Annan – U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was honored for his political courage and diplomatic integrity amid controversy and conflict that has redefined the role of the United Nations worldwide. This award recognized his ongoing efforts in building a world response to combat international terrorism, negotiating peaceful resolutions in volatile global and regional conflicts, and organizing a global AIDS campaign that pushed nations toward hard-fought reforms to battle the epidemic.
2003 – Dan Ponder, Jr.
In March 2000, the Georgia legislature was engaged in a bitter debate over a bill to strengthen penalties for hate crimes. The house had just voted 83-82 to shelve the bill when Dan Ponder, Jr., a Republican from a conservative district in southwestern Georgia, rose to speak. Ponder’s speech struck a sensitive chord with his fellow lawmakers. The house, Republicans and Democrats alike, gave him two standing ovations and subsequently voted 116-49 in favor of the bill. Soon after he gave his eloquent speech, Ponder retired from the Georgia legislature and returned to private business.
2003 – David Beasley – In November 1996, less than two years into his first term as governor of South Carolina, David Beasley, a conservative Republican, went on statewide television and asked the legislature to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state house dome, where it had flown beneath the American flag and the state flag since 1962. A previous supporter, his reversal on the flag stunned fellow Republicans and generated an angry backlash among his conservative political base.
2003 – Roy Barnes – In January 2001, in his first term as governor of Georgia, Roy Barnes succeeded where his predecessors had failed, winning the state legislature’s approval for a new state flag that minimized the prominence of the Confederate battle emblem, which had long been a focus of intense political conflict in the American South. In the fall of 2002, Barnes lost his bid for re-election to an opponent who made the flag change a centerpiece of his campaign, promising Georgians a public referendum on the new flag.
2004 – Cindy Watson – Shortly after she was elected to the North Carolina House of Representatives in 1995, Cindy Watson heard from a group of citizens who complained that waste and stench from area hog farms were causing asthma in children and contaminating water wells with E. coli bacteria. Industrial hog production was her district’s biggest business and a huge part of the local economy, but in 1997, Watson co-sponsored legislation to phase out the lagoons that held the waste of 9.3 million hogs, and to place a temporary moratorium on new pork production operations. As big a business and with as much clout as North Carolina’s tobacco industry, the hog industry poured tens of thousands of dollars a week into an intensely negative ad campaign against Watson, and financed a challenger to run against her in the 1998 Republican primary. Although she was the incumbent, Watson lost her party’s nomination and was ousted from office. She still lives in Duplin County.
2004 – Simar Samar
In 2002, Sima Samar became the first women’s affairs minister in Afghanistan’s post-Taliban interim government. Prior to her appointment, Samar had dedicated her life to the preservation of basic rights for women and girls in Afghanistan. She was ultimately forced to step down from her cabinet post, which was left unfilled. She subsequently was offered a non-cabinet position chairing the Independent Afghanistan Human Rights Commission, a position she still holds.
2004 – Paul Muegge – In 1998, Oklahoma State Senator Paul Muegge brought regulation to an industry that had long dictated its own terms to Oklahoma legislators. Muegge took on the powerful hog industry and angered the state’s many hog farm workers by sponsoring legislation to regulate hog production, a billion-dollar industry in the state. After nearly losing his seat, Muegge continued his fight to hold chicken and hog producers accountable for ground and water pollution associated with industrial animal farming, and launched new efforts to curb the anti-competitive business practices of the industry.
2005 – Viktor Yushchenko – In December 2004, despite an assassination attempt and repeated efforts by Russian- backed political opponents to rig his defeat through election fraud, Viktor Yushchenko became the democratically elected leader of Ukraine. In doing so, he inspired citizens of the world with his extraordinary courage.
2005 – Bill Ratliff – Bill Ratliff, former state senator and one-time lieutenant governor of Texas, has been hailed as one of the state’s greatest leaders, a thoughtful and dutiful public servant who routinely risked his own political career to solve public problems in a bipartisan manner. Among his many legislative achievements, he drove the passage of a controversial law to overhaul the financing of the state public education system, redistributing property tax income from wealthy school districts to poor ones.
2005 – Shirley Franklin – 2005 Profile in Courage Award Recipient Shirley Franklin became Mayor of Atlanta in 2001, having never before run for public office. She inherited an $82 million budget deficit – about a fifth of the city’s total budget – and a crisis of confidence in the public management of the city. Atlanta’s sewer system needed immediate and massive repairs, and its homeless population was growing at an alarming rate. Instead of blaming her predecessor or glossing over the depth of the crisis, Franklin responded by leveling with Atlantans about the extent of the city’s problems, and asked everyone to bear the burden of solving them. Franklin’s blunt insistence upon fiscal solvency and her unblinking acceptance of the political risks of her decisions were instead met with cheers.
2005 – Joseph Darby
In January 2004, while serving with the 372nd Military Police Company in Iraq, Joseph M. Darby, then an Army Specialist, anonymously turned in to Army investigators a fellow soldier’s photographs depicting members of his unit taking part in the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison. Darby’s tip calling attention to the abuse at Abu Ghraib resulted in an Army investigation into policies and practices at the prison. Several months later, when news and photographs of the abuse were published in American news media, his actions became the spark that ignited a firestorm of global outrage at the United States.
2006 – John Murtha – In November 2005, U.S. Congressman John P. Murtha (D-PA), a Vietnam War veteran and the ranking Democrat and former chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, galvanized debate about the war in Iraq by calling for the phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from the conflict. Murtha, who had voted in favor of the Iraq war, argued that American soldiers had become targets and “a catalyst for violence” in Iraq. His unexpected and dramatic reversal of support for the war put him at odds with military leaders, the Bush Administration, and many members of his own party. As a combat veteran and a retired Marine Corps colonel with 37 years’ service in the U.S. military, Murtha’s decision to withdraw his support for the Iraq war carried particular weight. His decision to speak out against a protracted conflict shifted public sentiment about the war and generated a substantive national debate on the progress, policies and objectives of the U.S. presence in Iraq.
2006 – Alberto Mora – In December 2002, Alberto J. Mora, then general counsel of the United States Navy, was alerted by Navy investigators to reports that detainees held by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay were being subjected to cruel and unlawful interrogation practices. Mora, whose civilian position accorded him a rank equal to that of a four-star general, soon came to learn that the cruel and abusive practices of United States military interrogators at Guantanamo were the result of significant policy shifts at the highest levels of the U.S. government. Over the next three years, Mora waged a campaign inside the Bush Administration to prevent military and civilian leaders from codifying any policy that might implicitly or explicitly sanction the mistreatment of Guantanamo detainees as part of the war on terror. For his moral courage and his commitment to upholding American values, Alberto Mora was honored with the 2006 Profile in Courage Award.
2007 – Doris Voitier – Voitier was honored with the 2007 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in recognition of her courageous fight to rebuild the St. Bernard Parish schools in the face of pervasive devastation and bureaucratic indifference. When every building in St. Bernard Parish was damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Voitier worked boldly and tirelessly, without help from the state or federal government, to reopen school doors to any student who might return home. With one borrowed computer, no working phones, and no emergency grant money, Voitier took out loans to hire disaster clean-up teams, secure portable classrooms, and rent trailers to house a skeletal teaching staff that agreed to work for reduced pay. Just weeks after the storm, Voitier reopened the first school to some 300 returning students, out of more than 8,000 who had been enrolled in parish schools before the disaster.
2007 – Bill White – As the Mayor of Houston, Texas, Bill White marshaled the resources and goodwill of his city to provide refuge and essential services to hundreds of thousands of people who fled the Gulf Coast after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. White led a community-wide effort that included diverting convention and event business to open the region’s convention center and public facilities to tens of thousands of evacuees.
2008 – William Winter – As Governor of Mississippi in the early 1980’s, William Winter called the state legislature into special session to pass a landmark education reform proposal aimed at bringing uniform quality and racial tolerance to public education in Mississippi. Winter’s Education Reform Act of 1982 was among the most significant pieces of legislation of its kind ever passed.
2008 – Debra Bowen – After a $450 million investment by California counties in electronic voting systems aimed at modernizing elections, newly elected Secretary of State Debra Bowen ordered an independent review of the new voting technologies to ensure they adequately protected the integrity of the vote.
2008 – Jennifer Brunner – A series of voting irregularities in several major Ohio counties that use electronic voting systems led newly elected Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner to order that paper ballots be provided to any voter who requested one during the state’s March 2008 presidential primary. Furthermore, after a study of the state’s new electronic voting systems – just two years old and representing millions in public investment – found that the systems made by several major voting machine manufacturers could be compromised, Brunner called for the replacement of all of the state’s electronic voting systems with paper ballots and optical scan technology before the November 2008 presidential election.
2009 – Brooksley Born
In 1998, as chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), Brooksley Born unsuccessfully tried to bring over-the-counter financial derivatives under the regulatory control of the CFTC. The government’s failure to regulate such financial deals has been widely criticized as one of the causes of the current financial crisis.
2009 – Sheila Bair – Sheila Bair has been called a “lone voice in the wilderness” for her early warnings about the sub-prime lending crisis and for her dogged criticism of both Wall Street’s and the government’s management of the subsequent financial meltdown. As early as 2001, Bair was urging sub-prime lenders to agree on a set of best practices to prevent abuses.
2009 – Leymah Gbowee and Women of Liberia – After watching her native Liberia devolve into a decadelong civil war in which violence, rape, and murder became part of daily life, Leymah Gbowee brought together several dozen women to pray for peace. That effort launched a movement of ordinary Christian and Muslim women who rose up together to help put an end to Liberia’s civil war.
2009 – Edward M. Kennedy – The political valor of Edward Moore Kennedy exceeds what can be told in a single volume. When principle demanded that he stand alone, he stood alone. When the public interest called for compromise, he compromised. When hope and human dignity could be advanced by reaching across the aisle, he extended his hand. He carried the nation on his shoulders through the most important struggles of our time – for justice, for equality, for opportunity, for freedom.
2010 – CA Legislators – In February 2009, amid one of the worst budget crises in California’s history, an imploding economy, and potentially catastrophic partisan deadlock, the state’s Republican and Democratic party leaders came together to address the financial emergency. After weeks of grueling negotiation, the legislative leaders and Gov. Schwarzenegger reached an agreement on a comprehensive deal to close most of a $42 billion shortfall, putting an end to years of government inaction and sidestepping of the difficult decisions necessary to address California’s increasingly dire fiscal crisis.
2011 – Elizabeth Redenbaugh
An active school volunteer for years, Elizabeth Redenbaugh was sworn in as a member of North Carolina’s New Hanover County school board in December 2008. A few months after she was elected, the school board began contemplating a redistricting plan that appeared likely to result in increased socioeconomic and racial segregation in Wilmington middle schools. The local paper ran a strongly worded op-ed by Redenbaugh in which she challenged the ideas put forth by proponents of the plan. “I cannot vote in favor of any redistricting plan where the overwhelming majority of students at any given school qualify for free or reduced lunch.” She pointed out that the proposed “neighborhood schools” map would concentrate poor and, overwhelmingly, black children in several schools, setting them up for failure, and that she “could not in good conscience send any child from any background to a school” that data suggested was likely to fail.
2011 – Wael Ghonim and People of Egypt – The 2011 Profile in Courage Award was presented to Wael Ghonim in honor of all Egyptians who stood up, at great personal risk, for the principles of democracy and self-governance. They have all set a powerful example of political courage that inspires the world.
2012 – Iowa Supreme Court Justices – On April 3, 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court made history by unanimously striking down a statute barring same-sex marriage, making Iowa the third state in the U.S. and the first state outside of New England to allow same-sex marriage.
2012 – Robert Ford – Robert S. Ford began serving a recess appointment as the U.S. Ambassador to Syria in January 2011; his appointment was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in October 2011. He is the first American ambassador posted to Damascus since 2005, when the U.S. withdrew its diplomatic presence amid tensions over the Iraq war, human rights complaints, and the February 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
2013 – Gabrielle Giffords
On January 8, 2011, Giffords and eighteen others were shot during a constituent meeting she was holding in a supermarket parking lot in Casas Adobes, Arizona, in the Tucson metropolitan area. Six people died, including Arizona District Court Chief Judge John Roll; Gabe Zimmerman, one of Rep. Giffords’ staffers; and a nine-year-old girl, Christina-Taylor Green. After a year of rehabilitation, she resigned from Congress in order to focus on her recovery. On the second anniversary of the shooting, Giffords and her husband, retired Navy Captain and astronaut Mark Kelly, launched Americans for Responsible Solutions to encourage elected officials to support measures to prevent gun violence and promote responsible gun ownership.
2014 – Paul Bridges – In 2011, Bridges, then the mayor of Uvalda, Georgia, joined a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU to stop the implementation of H.B. 87, a law aimed at driving illegal immigrants out of Georgia. As written, H.B. 87 authorized police to demand “papers” demonstrating immigration status during traffic stops, and criminalized Georgians who knowingly interact with undocumented individuals, among other measures. Bridges, a Republican who was elected mayor in 2009, was the only politician to join the suit.
2014 – George H. W. Bush – In 1990, with the federal deficit at $200 billion and the Congressional Budget Office suggesting it could double, President Bush negotiated with congressional Democrats to enact a budget deal which included spending cuts and tax increases aimed at reducing the deficit by approximately $500 billion over the following five years.
2015 – Bob Inglis – Bob Inglis represented the 4th Congressional District of South Carolina from 1993-1998 and again from 2005-2010. A member of the House Science Committee who served as Ranking Member of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, Inglis initially opposed efforts to address climate change. But interactions with scientists in Antarctica, Australia and elsewhere, along with encouragement from his five children, changed his views on climate change, and he began advocating for a carbon tax to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
2016 – Dan Malloy
Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy was named the 2016 recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for courageously defending the U.S. resettlement of Syrian refugees amid security concerns following the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and personally welcoming a family of Syrian refugees to New Haven after they had been turned away by another state.
2017 – Barack Obama – From his inspirational 2008 campaign until his final weeks in office, Barack H. Obama consistently reflected in so many ways, big and small, the definition of courage that John F. Kennedy cited in the opening lines of Profiles in Courage: “Grace under pressure.”
He picked up the torch from President Kennedy and has now passed it on to a new generation of Americans, inspiring young people across the country to enter public service, affirming our belief in an America that is more than a collection of Red states and Blue states, and reminding all of us that no matter what we look like, where we come from, or what faith we practice, we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper.
Throughout his two terms in office, President Obama upheld the highest standards of dignity, decency and integrity, serving not just as a political leader, but a moral leader, offering hope and healing to the country and providing young men and women of all backgrounds with an example they can emulate in their own lives.
2018 – Mitch Landrieu – Mitch Landrieu was elected mayor of New Orleans in 2010. In June 2015, more than a year into his second term, nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina were killed by a white supremacist. Responding to the racially motivated violence with a dramatic decision of conscience, Landrieu boldly sought and secured city council support to remove four of New Orleans’ Confederate monuments – statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, and one dedicated to those who opposed Reconstruction. While civil rights advocates had long called for the removal of New Orleans’ Confederate monuments, Landrieu was the first elected official to take on the controversial issue directly by conceiving and implementing a plan to remove them.
The move was met with fierce opposition. Landrieu faced impassioned constituents who argued the statues represented an important part of the state’s identity and culture. Defenders of the monuments tried every possible legal channel to halt their removal. Confederate sympathizers from around the country and threats sent from across the internet added fuel to the debate. Contractors who signed up for the removal received multiple death threats, and one of them had his car firebombed.
After a bitterly fought battle, in May 2017, the fourth of the longstanding statues was removed. While the monuments were dismantled at night to protect the contractors, Landrieu did not allow the significance of the moment to go unnoticed. He made a sweeping speech candidly reflecting on the history of slavery and brutality that undergirded the monuments, and appealing to public conscience to reckon truthfully with America’s enduring legacy of racism.
2019 – Nancy Pelosi – In 2010, amid a public climate of deepening polarization, Pelosi tirelessly spearheaded the passage of the Affordable Care Act. The ACA has subsequently enabled millions of Americans to have access to quality, affordable health care, and improved benefits for tens of millions more; it was the most significant expansion of health care access since the implementation of Medicare and Medicaid nearly half a century before. Following its passage, Pelosi became the subject of negative political attacks from the GOP. Democrats lost control of the House in November 2010, ending her first tenure as House Speaker.
Despite facing opposition, Pelosi Illustrated her persistence and determination, as she set out to rebuild the Democratic Party in the image of America. In 2018, she led Democrats in electing the most diverse Congress in U.S. history – more people of color, more LGBT Americans, and a record setting 35 new Democratic women – including the first native American women and Muslim American women. With Democrats back in the majority, Pelosi elevated a new generation of leaders to leadership positions and skillfully united her party focusing on shared values, policy priorities, and a commitment to governing for the greater good. On January 3, 2019, Pelosi was once again elected Speaker of the House, becoming the first speaker in more than 60 years to win nonconsecutive terms.
In her extraordinary tenure as House Speaker, Pelosi has secured the passage of landmark legislation to expand access to health care, make historic investments in renewable energy resources, improve access to education, reform the financial services industry, and repeal the discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that that barred gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. military.