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Maya Angelou, radical activist

Long before Barack Obama draped the Presidential Medal of Freedom around her shoulders, Angelou was an activist.
Author and poet Maya Angelou pictured in 1974.
Author and poet Maya Angelou pictured in 1974.

Before Maya Angelou wrote the landmark first chapter of her autobiographyI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, before she read On the Pulse of the Morning at Bill Clinton's 1993 inaugural, and before Barack Obama draped the Presidential Medal of Freedom around her shoulders, Angelou was an activist. 

Born in 1928 in Missouri but raised in Arkansas, Angelou died Wednesday after a lifetime of witnessing and documenting the social and political upheaval that swept through not just the Jim Crow South but across the world, with a literary voice so distinct and pure it was sometimes parodied but impossible to imitate. Angelou wrote Caged Bird in 1969 at the end of a troubled decade, during which she had devoted herself to helping liberate black Americans and watched close friends and admired colleagues cut down by assassins. 

Angelou had an unparalleled ability to inspire those around her and drew some of the most significant Americans of the 20th century into her orbit. She was pals with writers like James Baldwin and  Rosa Guy, musicians like Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, and had the confidence and admiration of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and revolutionaries like Malcolm X. Angelou was the epitome of the kind of activist, like Harry Belafonte or Paul Robeson, whose life was dedicated to both art and advocacy.

Maya Angelou in 1974.
Maya Angelou in 1974.

That ability to inspire had lead Bayard Rustin, the legendary civil rights activist and organizer, to leave his role as coordinator in Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Angelou's hands, just shortly after she had produced a musical revue, Cabaret for Freedom, to raise money for the organization. Angelou wrote inThe Heart of a Woman, "It was the awakening summer of 1960 and the entire country was in labor. Something wonderful was about to be born, and we were all going to be good parents to the welcome child. Its name was Freedom." 

Rustin had been forced out of the SLCC by black Democratic Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, who was threatening to out Rustin as gay and spread rumors that he and King were involved. 

Angelou didn't simply lend her presence, unique voice or money to the cause. These days it's fashionable for wealthy celebrities to lend their image to one movement or another, but Angelou took up activism while she was a working artist raising a child by herself and struggling to pay rent. She was doing the hard work of fundraising, sending out letters and representing the organization.

Her work "so impressed the groups' leaders that Dr. King made a point of coming to meet her." Though she had seen King speak, they had never met in person. "Looking at him in my office, alone," Angelou wrote, "was like seeing a lion sitting down at my dining-room table eating a plate of mustard greens."

Frustration would temporarily sour Angelou on King's approach, she recalled in All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes. "All the prayers, sit-ins, sacrifices, jail sentences, humiliation, insults and jibes had not borne out Reverend King’s vision," Angelou wrote.

Her activism didn't cease--she was drawn instead to Malcolm X and helped found the Cultural Association for Women of African Heritage. In 1961, CAWAH organized a protest at the United Nations over the assassination of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, which had been approved by the CIA.

The event was initially meant to be subdued. "We had been expected to stand, veiled and mournful, in a dramatic but silent protest," Angelou wrote. 

CAWAH members and other activists had prepared black veils and armbands to wear while U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Adlai Stevenson spoke. But the anger of Lumumba's assassination broke through, and Angelou "heard my own voice shouting, “Murderers. Killers. Assassins.” Suddenly the assembly room was in chaos, echoing the larger crowd of protestors outside the building.

Historian Peniel Joseph wrote inWaiting Til the Midnight Hourhis history of the black power movement, that the New York Times characterized the protest as an "invasion" and "the 'worst day of violence' in UN history." In a scene reminiscent of today's umbrage wars, prominent black leaders were forced to condemn the protest and disassociate themselves.

For Angelou, "The day had proven that Harlem was in commotion and the rage was beyond the control of the NAACP, the SCLC or the Urban League."

Shortly afterwards, Angelou would leave the U.S. for Egypt with her partner Vusumzi Make, a South African anti-apartheid activist, where she became a journalist. Working at the University of Ghana during the March on Washington, Angelou would join with other activists there marching on the American embassy in solidarity. When she returned to the United States, it was to help Malcolm X establish his new venture, the Organization of African-American Unity.

When she first met Malcolm, Angelou wrote that "up close he was a great red arch through which one could pass to eternity...I had never been so affected by a human presence." As a leader in the Nation of Islam, Malcolm had favored racial separation--when they met again in Ghana, Malcolm's embrace of orthodox Sunni Islam and pilgramage to Mecca had washed away the NOI's doctrine that all whites were irredeemable.

Angelou had become disenchanted those she saw as moderates in the struggle--and though she had not lost faith in King she was careful about alluding to her past with the SCLC while she was living in Ghana. "My policy was to keep quiet when Reverend King’s name was mentioned," she wrote. "I didn’t want to remind my radical friends of my association with the peacemaker." 

Maya Angelou in 1974.
Maya Angelou in 1974.

Ironically it was the reformed Malcolm who helped put things back in perspective. "When you hear that the Urban League or the NAACP is giving a formal banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria, I know you won’t go, but don’t knock them," she recalled Malcolm as telling her. "They give scholarships to poor Black children. One of those recipients might become a Julian Mayfield, or a Maya Angelou, or a Malcolm X. You understand?"

After years abroad, Angelou was convinced that Malcolm's new organization would prevail.

"The passion my people would exhibit under Malcolm’s leadership was going to help us rid our country of racism once and for all," Angelou wrote. "The Africans in South Africa often said they had been inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Montgomery bus boycott of 1958. Well, we were going to give them something new, something visionary, to look up to. After we had cleansed ourselves and our country of hate, they would be able to study our methods, take heart from our example and let freedom ring in their country as it would ring in ours."

It never got the chance. Malcolm was slain in New York City shortly after Angelou returned to the United States in 1965.

"If a group of racists had waylaid Malcolm, killed him in the dark and left his body as a mockery to all black people, I might have accepted his death more easily," Angelou wrote. "But he was killed by black people as he spoke to black people about a better future for black people and in the presence of his family."

Years later, King would ask Angelou to return to the SCLC as part of his Poor People's Campaign. It was 1968, after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, and King was shifting from the struggle for civil rights to economic justice. "I need someone to travel this country and talk to black preachers. I’d like each big church to donate one Sunday’s collection to the poor people’s march," Angelou recalled King saying. "I need you, Maya. Not too many black preachers can resist a good-looking woman with a good idea."

Angelou joked that she could only start after her birthday, because "I have to give a party to explain to these hard-nosed New Yorkers why I’m going back to the SCLC. They think I’m much more of an activist, a real radical." King assured her that "what I'm planning is radical."

As with Macolm however, King was killed before Angelou was able to join him once again. She was in Harlem when the news broke that King had been slain in Memphis, where he had gone to protest on behalf of striking sanitation workers. For Angelou, the funerals of the 1960s seemed to run together:

Death of a beloved flattens and dulls everything. Mountains and skyscrapers and grand ideas are brought down to eye level or below. Great loves and large hates no longer cast such huge shadows or span so broad a distance. Connections do not adhere so closely, and important events lose some of their glow. Everywhere I turned, life was repeating itself. The photograph of Coretta Scott King, veiled and standing with her children, reminded me of the picture of Jacqueline Kennedy with her children. Both women were under the probing, curious and often sympathetic eye of the world. Yet each stood as if she and her children and her memories lived together in an unknowable dimension. On radio and in newspapers, Martin King’s name was linked again and again with the name Malcolm X. As if the life and death of one confirmed the life and death of the other.

Angelou, a poet, actor, singer, dancer and playwright, would finally be recognized as a monumental literary voice with the release Caged Bird the following year.

History has a way of turning radicals into Hallmark cards--a task made even easier with Angelou given that she literally wrote Hallmark cards. But behind her inspirational quotes and talent for turning a phrase was a dedicated activist, not just a witness but a fighter in the battle for black rights in America. It would be easy to remember the quotes but forget the struggle, the songs and poems but not the protests, the honors but not the years spent in the shadow of Jim Crow, watching friends martyred by assassins' bullets. But with Maya Angelou, who was so many things to so many people, it would not do to forget.