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Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey honor Maya Angelou

Some of Maya Angelou's most famous words wove a thread through the private service held in her honor Saturday at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.
American author and poet Maya Angelou reciting in London in the late 1980's.
American author and poet Maya Angelou reciting in London in the late 1980's.

“When I think about Maya Angelou, I think about the affirming power of her words,” said first lady Michelle Obama at Saturday's private memorial service for the late author and civil rights activist, who died of natural causes on May 28 at age 86.

Angelou's words, after all, are among her greatest legacies. She wrote seven autobiographies in her lifetime, along with several books of poetry. And predictably, some of Angelou's most famous words wove a thread throughout the service, which also featured a number of musical performances.

The memorial was held at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., where Angelou taught for over 30 years, beginning in 1982.

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Angelou's grandson recited an excerpt from one of his grandmother's most empowering poems, "Still I Rise," while the theme of the first lady's tribute was Angelou's 2011 poem "Phenomenal Woman." Obama thanked Angelou for teaching black women, like herself, "to embrace our God-given beauty," noting "and, oh, how desperately we needed that message."

The service also included remarks by former President Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey. 

"I loved Maya," the former president said during his official tribute. Clinton recalled reading Angelou's landmark autobiography "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," shortly after its 1969 release, and relating to it partly on account of the story's locale, just miles from where Clinton himself grew up in Arkansas.

Clinton's personal relationship with Angelou dates back to at least 1993, when Angelou recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at his presidential inauguration. It marked the first time a poet made an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost recited "The Gift Outright" at the 1960 inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.

"Maya Angelou is the greatest woman I have ever known,” Winfrey said of her late friend and mentor, adding, "She thrived to help other people do the same." Winfrey lauded Angelou as both teacher and sage, concluding, "I cannot fill her shoes but I can walk in her footsteps."

Angelou campaigned for the Democratic Party in the 2008 presidential primaries, lending her public support to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. When Clinton's campaign ended, Angelou endorsed then-Sen. Barack Obama. President Obama would later present Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, in February 2011.

In a May 28 statement, Obama said of Angelou's death, “Today, Michelle and I join millions around the world in remembering one of the brightest lights of our time — a brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman,” adding, “She inspired my own mother to name my sister Maya.” The president's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, was named for Angelou.