Former Polish President Lech Wałęsa to receive Lincoln Leadership Prize


Wałęsa will accept the award February 9 in Chicago


Chicago, IL – Former Polish President Lech Wałęsa, who helped lead his country to a new era of freedom and became the first democratically elected leader in Polish postwar history, will receive the Lincoln Leadership Prize from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation during a special ceremony February 9, 2012 in Chicago. 

“The Lincoln Leadership Prize was established to recognize outstanding individuals whose lives and actions exemplify Lincoln’s legacy of leadership,” said Foundation CEO Dr. Carla Knorowski.  “President Lech Wałęsa embodies these ideals with a lifetime of work devoted to individual equality, reform, and democracy.”

“I am honored to be awarded the Lincoln Leadership Prize,” said Walesa.  “This prize from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation also pays homage to the Polish nation which more than two decades ago peacefully and democratically conducted an economic and social revolution.  As a result of this transformation, Poland entered a period of prosperity and justice.”

Wałęsa’s journey from work in the massive Lenin shipyard at Gdansk, Poland to the first democratically elected President in Poland’s postwar history was an arduous one.  Working as an electrician in the shipyards in the early 1970s, he witnessed violent government crackdowns ordered by Poland’s Communist Party leadership against its own citizens.  Wałęsa decided to take action and became recognized as a labor leader and activist, but was dismissed from the shipyard in 1976 for his anti-communist rhetoric. 

Four years later, when rising food costs led to a general strike inside the Gdansk shipyard, Wałęsa scaled a fence and rejoined his fellow workers, and was quickly appointed their leader.  The strike, which was soon joined by thousands of workers from across the country, forced the Polish government to agree to significant labor reforms.  For his leadership, Wałęsa was elected the first Solidarity Chairman at the First National Solidarity Congress in Gdansk.

These victories, however, were short-lived as the Communist government quickly reasserted its authority across the nation and Wałęsa was imprisoned for 18 months for his activities.  After his release in the fall of 1983, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his struggle to win workers’ rights in Poland. 

Over the next seven years, a deteriorating economy and a reduced Soviet military presence forced the Polish Communist government to negotiate with Wałęsa and his Solidarity brethren.  In 1990 he became the first democratically elected President of postwar Poland and helped to usher the country into the modern era by laying the foundation for Poland’s eventual admission into NATO, and, as a free nation, into the United Nations.  He served as President through 1995. 

Past Lincoln Leadership Award honorees include Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Astronaut James A. Lovell Jr., and the late television journalist Tim Russert. 

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation supports the educational and cultural programming of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum; fosters Lincoln scholarship through the acquisition and publication of documentary materials relating to Lincoln and his era; and promotes a greater appreciation of history through exhibits, conferences, publications, online services, and other activities designed to promote historical literacy.