Maya Angelou, who died Wednesday at age 86, first leapt into the political consciousness when she read a poem she wrote for President Bill Clinton's inauguration titled, "On the Pulse of Morning." A poet had not read at a presidential inauguration since 1961, when Robert Frost read "The Gift Outright" for President John F. Kennedy.
She told The Washington Post at the time: "It is fitting, at the risk of taking away from the fact that he really likes my poetry, it is fitting that he asks a woman and a black woman to write a poem about the tenor of the times. It might be symbolic that black women when looked at are on the bottom of the graph. It is probably fitting that a black woman try to speak to the alienation, the abandonment and to the hope of healing those inflictions which have befallen all Americans, that accounts for white Americans feeling so estranged. Somehow a black woman knows all about that."
Angelou, born in rural Arkansas, was politically active long before her role at Clinton's inauguration, however. In 1960, she became the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where she helped raise funds for the civil rights movement and met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. When she resigned six months later, she sent King a letter that noted, “I join with millions of black people the world over in saying, 'You are our leader.' "
Her poetry and writing proved an honest and forceful examination of race and gender in the United States, which led to their popularity and hers in the political sphere.
She told The Washington Post in April 1978: "My equipment tends to be that of a social humanitarian and a poet, which I suppose is the same thing, and I tend to watch how people are. I have three very close friends in Washington, two black and one white and they lie about fifteen blocks apart. They have much to share, to laugh about, but because Washington is incredibly segregated, these women would, if they met at a public gathering, hardly get to know each other."
She told the Advocate in Baton Rouge that although she thinks racism is still "extremely ugly in America," things are better than when she wrote "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" in 1969. “Our country is better now than it may seem to be. You can look around and see black people in positions of leadership, and they’ve been voted in by large white majorities ... men and women who head some of the large corporations and men and women who head some of the largely white universities.”
She also spoke of her admiration for President Obama — although she was often critical of his policies — and what he meant politically for other African Americans. She told the Guardian in 2012: "His physical self, just being there, his photograph in the newspapers as president of the United States; that has done so much good for the spirit of the African American. We see more and more children wanting to be like President Obama, wanting to go to school."
In 2007, National Public Radio interviewed Angelou about her support for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. The interviewer asked her if she would write a poem for her inauguration. She replied, "I don't know if she would even want me to. I would do my best, but I think we have other great poets in this country."