Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes and former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley were selected for this year's award because of their stand against the public display of the Confederate flag over their Capitol domes, while former Georgia state Rep. Dan Ponder Jr. was honored for a speech that led to the passage of Georgia's first hate-crimes legislation.
"The men who we honor today remind us all we must stand up for dignity and for tolerance," said Caroline Kennedy, president of the JFK Library and Museum in Boston and sole surviving child of the slain president.
"They have taken on the fight against intolerance," she said. "The challenge that they address is a signal to all of us that prejudice still has the power to divide us."
Beasley, a Republican, and Barnes, a Democrat, were "recognized for their principled efforts to diminish the divisive symbolism of the Confederate emblem and bring unity and tolerance to their states," Kennedy said.
Ponder, also a Republican, gave a passionate speech in support of hate-crime legislation that "galvanized the Georgia Legislature" into passing the measure, and "will take its place in American history as one of the great examples of the power of language to inspire action," she said.
"It's one of the all-time great political speeches," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., JFK's brother.
The senator praised the three for doing the right thing under heavy pressure, and often at great risk.
"They rose to the challenge of prejudice and bigotry despite risks," the senator told those gathered for the award ceremonies at the museum.
He noted that both governors endured a firestorm of outrage that divided their parties and the citizens of their states, and both were threatened with violence.
"All three of our award winners today, each in their own way, have stood up to ancient hatreds and tried to put an end to the divisions between their fellow citizens," the senator said.
Barnes and Beasley both blamed their re-election defeats, for the most part, on their stands on the flag issue. Ponders, a one-term legislator, did not seek re-election.
Caroline Kennedy presented each with a silver lantern, which symbolizes the "Beacon of Hope" embodied in her father's 1957 Pulitzer-Prize winning book, "Profiles in Courage."
The award, established in 1989, is presented each year in May in celebration of President Kennedy's May 29 birthday. It was created to honor political leaders who had the courage to make decisions of conscience without fear of the consequences, his daughter said.
Georgia, in 1956, adopted a new state flag bearing the Confederacy battle emblem that, throughout the South to this day, generates intense political conflict.
Some see it as a symbol of slavery and racism while others view it as a tribute to southern tradition and history.
South Carolina had flown the Confederate flag over its Capitol since the early 1960s.
Barnes and Beasley, both aware that taking on the flag issue meant they would likely be turned out of office, decided the time had come for a change.
Barnes sought to diminish the presence of the symbol and won legislative approval for a new state flag that dramatically reduced the emblem's visual presence on the flag.
Opponents to the change became outraged at Barnes.
In his acceptance speech, Barnes said he and other Southerners have a right and a duty to honor ancestors who fought in the Civil War.
"But we don't really honor them by flaunting a symbol that inflames and injures," he said. "That doesn't honor their valor. It perpetuates their tragic mistake. We honor their bravery, even as we now recognize that their cause, linked as it was to slavery, was wrong."
Barnes said there are worse things than losing an election.
"It is worse to lose our moral bearings," he said.
Beasley said the Confederate flag is indeed a part of American history, but should neither be worshipped nor destroyed.
"The flag over time became abused and misused as a symbol for hatred and discord -- on both sides of the issue," he said.
He said he believed that during his administration the time had come for the flag to be removed from the South Carolina Capitol dome.
"We must stand for what is right when it is right to do so," he said. "If we could showcase" the acceptance of tolerance in the South, Beasley said it would be an example "for the rest of the world."
Ponder said his parents taught him that "every human being has a right to live with respect and dignity, regardless of their color or station in life."
He said his moment to speak out for the first time on the issue came in 2000 when the Georgia Legislature was about to shelve a proposed hate-crimes bill.
"I knew that it was my time. I knew I had to speak," Ponder told reporters of his thoughts at the time. "If I don't do this, I'll always regret it for the rest of my life."
Ponder, a conservative Republican who had been expected to oppose the measure, stood up and defended it, saying "hate is all around us" and that parents and leaders must say "loudly and clearly that this is just not acceptable."
At the end of Ponder's House speech, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers gave him two standing ovations and overwhelmingly approved the bill to outlaw and punish all hate crimes in Georgia.
Ponder said in his acceptance speech that people "have to make unpopular decisions just because it is the right thing to do. Hate should have no place in our lives."
(For more information see Web site jfklibrary.org)