Cotton received a National Freedom Award and Parker a Legacy Award in a ceremony Wednesday, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported.
Cotton, 80, described growing up as the daughter of a sharecropper in Goldsboro, N.C., at a time when public libraries in the south were closed to blacks. She put herself through college and became education director of the Southern Christian Leadership Council.
Parker, one of ABC's "Desperate Housewives," talked of growing up in a Mexican-American community where dark skin was believed to be ugly and even her parents remarked on her coloring.
"I had to develop other skills. I thought, 'OK, I'm going to be the smart one,'" Parker said.
Her career as an actress and model began when she entered a beauty contest hoping to win a scholarship and won.
Wangari Maathai, who won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her work as an environmental and political activist in Kenya, was honored with the International Freedom Award. She was unable to travel to Memphis because of illness.