On Monday, the actor was given the Marian Anderson Award, named after the black American opera singer who achieved international acclaim by the mid-1930s but faced racial segregation at home.
Gere, 58, accepted the honor and its $100,000 ( EUR 68,600) honorarium at a gala at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.
"I'm not worthy of this award in any way whatsoever," Gere said. "I can't tell you how this makes me feel. My heart is so wide open."
Gere, a Buddhist, has advocated Tibetan independence from Chinese rule since 1978. He co-founded the Tibet House and is board chairman of the International Campaign for Tibet .
He established Healing the Divide, a public charity for improving care for HIV/AIDS patients, and a philanthropic foundation bearing his name helps humanitarian organizations.
His three-decade film career includes "An Officer and A Gentleman," "Pretty Woman" and "Chicago," which won him a Golden Globe award.
Anderson became the first black person to perform at the White House in 1939 and the first black soloist at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1955. She received the Medal of Freedom in 1963 and died in 1993 at age 96.