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Maya Angelou Memorial Service: Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama Honor Icon

Dignitaries including First Lady Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey honored Maya Angelou's legacy at a memorial service in North Carolina.
/ Source: Reuters

A crowd of family and friends gathered for a memorial service in North Carolina to honor Maya Angelou and her indelible voice as an author, activist and luminary.

Among those who called Angelou a "mentor, mother/sister and friend” was Oprah Winfrey, who joined dignitaries, including former President Bill Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama, to reflect on the renaissance woman's prolific legacy. The service was held at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, where Angelou taught for three decades.

Winfrey wiped tears as she recalled Angelou’s guidance throughout her career. She first met Angelou as a budding TV reporter in Baltimore. Impressed during the interview, the iconic poet took Winfrey under her wing — just as she had done for so many.

“She taught me the poetry of courage and respect,” Winfrey said. “She was always there holding me up to know myself.”

Obama also took a moment to reflect on when she first met Angelou in 2008 during a campaign event. She recalled how effortlessly Angelou captivated the audience, despite being wheelchair bound.

“She rolled up like she owned the place — she took the stage as she always did like she’d been born there,” the first lady said. “And I was completely awed and overwhelmed by her presence.”

Angelou was 86 when she died at her home on May 28.

Angelou is perhaps best known for her 1969 autobiography "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," about growing up in Stamps, Arkansas, during the Jim Crow era of segregation. That pioneering work helped give black women writers a literary voice and became a reading list staple in American classrooms.

Clinton described how he was “struck dumb” by Angelou’s book, having grown up just miles away from Stamps. He later went through a list of the many hats Angelou wore during her storied career, including everything from working as San Francisco’s first African-American streetcar conductor to writing widely acclaimed books and poetry.

“She had enough experiences for five lifetimes,” Clinton said.

Angelou wrote the poem "On the Pulse of Morning" and read it at Clinton's first presidential inauguration in 1993.

Her 1969 memoir was among a body of work including more than 30 books of fiction and poetry produced during her prodigious career. Angelou's grandson, Elliot Jones, opened the service with an excerpt from one of Angelou's highly praised poems, "Still I Rise."

Angelou was also a Tony-nominated stage actress, Grammy Award winner for three spoken-word albums, civil rights activist, streetcar conductor, Calypso singer, dancer, movie director and playwright.

Singers, including BeBe Winans and Lee Ann Womack, gave emotional musical performances throughout the service, as a nod to Angelou’s performing arts background. Cicely Tyson also reflected on Angelou’s abilities as a performing artist during the service, based on their decades-long friendship.

“I can tell you that every emotion known to man was exhibited by Maya,” Tyson said during the memorial service. “She held back nothing.”

Tyson met Angelou in the 1960s when both women performed in “The Blacks,” a play directed by Jean Genet, which Tyson said has influenced black theater ever since.

In 2011, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor, was bestowed upon Angelou by President Barack Obama.

After her death, Obama said, he and the first lady cherished the time they had spent with Angelou, for whom the president said his sister was named.

Angelou served as a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest since 1982, and had planned to teach a course on race, culture and gender this fall, the university said.

— Jacob Passy

Reuters contributed to this report.