WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Wednesday tapped poet/author Maya Angelou, veteran civil rights activist John Lewis and former Boston Celtics Captain Bill Russell among 15 Americans and foreigners for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

The medal is presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.

The other recipients are former President George H. W. Bush, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Natural Resources Defense Council co-founder John H. Adams, Berkshire Hathaway chairman/CEO Warren Buffett, and artist Jasper Johns.

Also, Jewish Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissmann Klein, optometrist Dr. Tom Little (posthumously), cellist Yo-Yo Ma, civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez, baseball legend Stan “The Man” Musial, Kennedy Center board of trustees secretary and former ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and president emeritus of the AFL-CIO John J. Sweeney.

Little’s citation noted that he was killed on Aug. 6 by the Taliban in the Kuran Wa Munjan district of Badakhshan, Afghanistan, along with nine other members of a team returning from a humanitarian mission to provide vision care in the remote Parun valley of Nuristan. 

Little and his wife Libby “lived and worked  in Afghanistan for three decades beginning in 1976, raising three daughters and providing vision, dental and mother/child care to the people of that country,” the citation says. 

“These outstanding honorees come from a broad range of backgrounds and they’ve excelled in a broad range of fields, but all of them have lived extraordinary lives that have inspired us, enriched our culture, and made our country and our world a better place,” Obama said in a White House statement announcing the awardees.

The medal will be presented at a White House ceremony early next year.