Steven Spielberg received the 2009 National Constitution’s Liberty Medal in Philadelphia on October 8, 2009. Honored guests included former U.S. President Clinton, Governor of Pennsylvania Edward Rendell, Mayor of Philadelphia Michael Nutter, actress Whoopi Goldberg, and Kate Capshaw, actress and wife of Steven Spielberg.
Featuring a performance by folk singer and guitarist Richie Havens and violinist Nikki Chooi of Curtis Institute of Music, the event was broadcast locally to the Philadelphia television viewing audience on ABC.
Established in 1988 by We the People to commemorate the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, the Liberty Medal is an annual award to honor the work of those who have secured liberty for people around the world.
“The recipients have been presidents, dissidents, doctors … even a Polish electrician turned statesman, Lech Walesa, who banished darkness from the Iron Curtain with the light of Solidarity” said Linda Johnson, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing public understanding of the U.S. Constitution.
“Tonight we honor another artisan of light—the preeminent filmmaker of our time, Steven Spielberg.”
Johnson said, “Few citizens of the world have answered the Founding Fathers’ call more originally, brilliantly—and entertainingly than Steven Spielberg.” A three time Academy Award winner for Best Pictures and Best Director of “Schindler’s List” and Best Director for “Saving Private Ryan,” Spielberg filmography includes hits, such as “Munich,” “Amistad,” “The Color Purple,” and “E.T.”
Former U.S. President Clinton who presented the award praised the ending that Spielberg gave to “Schindler’s List” as well as Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, a project to record first hand accounts of the Holocaust. The foundation has the world’s largest collection of testimonies provided by survivors and witnesses, with 52,000 video testimonies. More recently, the Foundation filmed survivors of the genocide in Rwanda.
“He gives dignities to survivors and their family members and to give them the power” Clinton said.
“It is fitting that we have chosen a recipient whose work resonates with people of all ages and cultures, encouraging thoughtful recognition of what it means to stand up for freedom”, said Governor Rendell.
Shawn Ma, 39 and Anna Dong, 41—a Chinese couple in attendance agreed with the compliments paid to Spielberg.
Ma and Dong said they were in China last year when Spielberg announced withdrawal of his role in the Beijing Olympic as Artistic Advisor in February 2008. The couple recalled Chinese government’s brutal persecution and crackdown against dissidents groups, such as Falun Gong, Tibetans, civil rights activists.
“The government said they must strike hard against people so they could maintain ‘social stability for a prosperous Olympic’” Ma, a former employee of a state-owned enterprise said. According to Dong, a former restaurant owner, she was sentenced to a two-year prison term and was tortured in jail for her practice of Falun Gong. The couple recently escaped China with their nine-year-old son and moved to Philadelphia under political asylum.
In a public statement issued to Chinese Embassy Beijing Olympic Games Committee, Spielberg said, “I find my conscience doesn’t allow me to do business as usual. At this point, my time and energy must be spent not on Olympic ceremonies, but on doing all I can to help bring an end to the unspeakable crimes against humanity that continue to be committed in Darfur.”
Ma and Dong said Spielberg’s move not only brought hope to people in Sudan, but also greatly encouraged people in China. “We are very happy for him [Spielberg] to win this great award. He definitely deserves it,” Ma said.
Mayor Nutter welcomed Spielberg at the ceremony, “As America’s cradle of freedom, the city of Philadelphia is proud to bestow this honor on one of the world’s most recognized humanitarians, whose work has touched the lives of millions and has ensured the important stories of our time live on.”
Spielberg said he was honored. In a personal speech that sparkled heart-felt laughter and applause from audience, the filmmaker discussed the “deep connection between making art and making a better world.” He called the Founding Fathers great artists and considered the Constitution and the United States itself as their work of art.
Spielberg is the first visual artist to receive the Liberty Medal. Past recipient include Nelson Mandela, Kim Dae Jung, president of South Korea, Colin Powell, Former U.S. secretary of state, Senator George J. Mitchell, Irish peace negotiator.