First lady, Bill Clinton herald Maya Angelou as force in history

Sat Jun 7, 2014 3:12pm EDT
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By Colleen Jenkins

WINSTON-SALEM N.C. (Reuters) - First lady Michelle Obama remembered poet, author and civil rights champion Maya Angelou on Saturday as a dominant cultural force who taught black women and people of all races to celebrate their own worth and beauty.

Obama credited the writer's works, including her pioneering 1969 autobiography "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," with helping carry a young black girl from the South Side of Chicago to the White House.

"She celebrated black women's beauty like no one ever had before," Obama said to more than 2,000 people at Angelou's private memorial service in North Carolina. "She told us our worth had nothing to do with what the world might say."

Former President Bill Clinton, media magnate Oprah Winfrey and actress Cicely Tyson also honored Angelou during the service at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, where she lived and taught for three decades.

Angelou was 86 when she died at her home on May 28 after years of failing health. Her only child, son Guy B. Johnson, said she never lost her mental acuity.

The tribute to her was celebratory and solemn. Winfrey and Tyson each wept over the loss of their "rock," while rousing performances by singers Lee Ann Womack, BeBe Winans and Alyson Williams brought the audience to their feet.

Speakers recalled the courageous spirit that allowed Angelou to overcome rape and racism during her childhood in the segregated South and produce a vast body of work that includes reading list staples in American classrooms.

The voice she found after years of not speaking due to her abuse was one of rare power and clarity, Clinton said. Angelou wrote the poem "On the Pulse of Morning" and read it at Clinton's first presidential inauguration in 1993.   Continued...

U.S. poet Maya Angelou speaks during a ceremony to honor South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu with the J. William Fulbright Prize for International Understanding Award in Washington November 21, 2008. REUTERS/Jim Young