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Poet Addresses Inaugural Event

By Harry F. Rosenthal
Associated Press Writer
Monday, January 20, 1997; 3:23 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON (AP) -- For a poet who came to his calling late in life, it was a moment to savor. The words of the just inaugurated president still hung in the air. The attention of America was riveted on the gaunt fellow from Arkansas with the lined face. And Miller Williams began to read.

``We have memorized America, how it was born and who we have been and where,'' he recited in a strong, sure voice. ``We mean to be the people we meant to be, to keep on going where we meant to go.''

President Clinton, listening intently, nodded his head in agreement.

Miller Williams is an Arkansas friend of long standing. He distributed literature for the young Clinton in an abortive run for Congress.

At the congressional luncheon given for the president after the inaguration ceremony, Clinton referred to ``my friend of 25 years.'' Of the inaugural poem, he said, ``I will take it as an admonition and will keep it close to my heart.''

Williams was born in Hoxie, Ark., a little railroad town in the northeast corner of the state. He always wanted to write but entrance tests at Hendrix College, in Conway, Ark., showed ``I had no verbal aptitude and that if I didn't want to embarrass my parents I should go into the hard sciences.''

So he became a biologist and was just short of a doctorate when he got a job teaching English. He lasted at Hendrix only through his sophomore year, when he was asked to leave for taking part in a scheme to have a young black student enrolled before his race was discovered.

His inaugural poem reflect his years as a civil rights activist.

``Who were many people coming together cannot become one people falling apart. Who dreamed for every child an even chance cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not....

``Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.

``We know what we have done and what we have said, and how we have grown, degree by slow degree, believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become -- just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.''

There had been only two inaugural poets before Williams. In 1961, at John F. Kennedy's inauguration, it was Robert Frost. And four years ago, at Bill Clinton's first, it was Maya Angelou.

Williams' daughter, Lucinda Williams, is perhaps known to a larger audience. A writer and singer of country songs, she was given this accolade last year by fellow singer Emmylou Harris: ``She can sing the chrome right off a trailer hitch.''

Williams has another daughter, Karyn, and a son, Robert.

He has written 26 books of poetry, criticism and history and has won many of poetry's most prestigious honors.

His father, E.B. Williams, was a Methodist clergyman who in the 1957 Little Rock school integration crisis stood with a small group of ministers against Gov. Orval Faubus' attempt to continue a segregated school system. His mother, Williams said, was as fearless as his father and just as outspoken.

In an autobiographical article, Williams recalled his father said from his deathbed in 1973 that ``he just hated to die with Nixon still in the White House.''

Williams and his second wife, Jordan, rang doorbells and passed out literature in 1975 for Clinton, who was then a young instructor at the University of Arkansas running, unsuccessfully, for Congress.

He became friends with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter when he was asked to write a poem welcoming them home to Georgia in 1981. Williams was impressed with Carter, who, he said, had a good understanding and love for poetry.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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