Kennedy established the modern version of the medal, the highest award the U.S. bestows on civilians, in the months before his death. He was killed two weeks before he planned to honor the inaugural group of recipients, and it fell to President Lyndon Johnson to preside over the ceremony at the White House on the day Kennedy’s family was moving out.
Since then more than 500 have received the medal.
Obama will present the award Wednesday to the 2013 recipients, including Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, the late astronaut Sally Ride, women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem, baseball Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, country music singer Loretta Lynn and 10 others.
On Wednesday evening, Obama plans a speech on Kennedy’s legacy of service with a dinner at the Smithsonian American History Museum attended by current and past recipients of the medal, including baseball’s Hank Aaron, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, singer Aretha Franklin, economist Alan Greenspan, activist Jesse Jackson and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Kennedy’s grandson, Jack Schlossberg, is to introduce Obama at the dinner.
Other Kennedy members plan to attend, including Robert Kennedy’s daughter Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and former diplomat Jean Kennedy Smith, a former medal winner and John Kennedy’s last surviving sibling.
Friday marks 50 years to the day since Kennedy was killed by a gunman in Dallas. Obama will meet privately at the White House that day with leaders and volunteers from the Peace Corps program Kennedy established.
Details of Obama’s plans were provided by the White House to The Associated Press.
The Clintons’ presence at the eternal flame where Kennedy is buried is sure to spark speculation about whether Obama has a favorite in the 2016 race to succeed him.
For Hillary Clinton, his former secretary of state, her every move is examined for signs of whether she’ll run. Vice President Joe Biden, another potential candidate, plans to be at the medal ceremony and dinner but will not be at the grave.
President Harry Truman established an early version of the Medal of Freedom in 1945 to recognize those whose actions overseas advanced the national security of the United States or its allies, but it also could be bestowed by other top U.S. officials.
By executive order in February 1963, Kennedy made bestowing the Medal of Freedom a presidential privilege and expanded its scope to honor contributions to world peace, culture and other public interests.
According to the White House, Kennedy announced the inaugural list of 31 awardees on July 4, 1963, selecting opera singers, diplomats, academics and civic leaders.
The medal design was finalized in the fall, and a ceremony was scheduled for Dec. 6. On Nov. 21, the day before the assassination, Kennedy’s special assistant forwarded a request to have the Marine String Orchestra play at the awards reception.
Johnson decided to move forward with the lunchtime ceremony in the State Dining Room and surprised the dignitaries in attendance by adding Kennedy and the recently deceased Pope John XXIII as posthumous recipients.
“In the shattering sequence of events that began 14 days ago, we encountered in its full horror man’s capacity for hatred and destruction,” Johnson said at the ceremony. “There is little we do not know of evil, but it is time to turn once more to the pursuits of honor and excellence and of achievement that have always marked the true direction of the American people.”
Jacqueline Kennedy declined Johnson’s plans to also award a medal to her. She watched from an anteroom as Attorney General Robert Kennedy accepted the medal on his brother’s behalf. That afternoon, Mrs. Kennedy and her children moved out of the White House.