TOPICS > Arts > in memoriam

From rough beginnings, respected writer and activist Maya Angelou made a remarkable journey

May 28, 2014 at 6:45 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: remembering author, poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou.

Jeffrey Brown has our appreciation.

MAYA ANGELOU: A rock, a river, a tree.

JEFFREY BROWN: On a chilly January day in 1993, Maya Angelou captured national attention and, in her own special way, the spirit of the moment for the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. The poem she read, “On the Pulse of the Morning,” became a national bestseller.

MAYA ANGELOU: But, today, the rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully, come, you may stand upon my back and face your distant destiny, but seek no haven in my shadow. I will give you no more hiding place down here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Long before that moment, Maya Angelou had become one of the most respected authors and cultural figures of her generation, making a remarkable journey from rough beginnings.

She was born Marguerite Johnson and spent much of her childhood in racially segregated Arkansas. After her mother’s boyfriend raped her at the age of 7, she retreated into silence for years. In 2012, at the New York Public Library, she remembered how books came into her life in those troubled times.

MAYA ANGELOU: I had been abused, and I returned to a little village in Arkansas. And a black lady took me to — she knew I wasn’t speaking. I refused to speak. For six years, I was a volunteer mute.

She took me to the library in the black school. The library probably had about 300 books, maybe. She said, “I want you to read every book in this library.” It seemed to me thousands of books.

JEFFREY BROWN: Angelou became a single mother at 17, worked a variety of jobs, including at a strip club, and even ran a brothel. Eventually, taking on a new name, she became a singer and dancer.

In 1969, at the urging of James Baldwin, she chronicled that early life in the first of what would become a series of memoirs, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” It won critical praise and made her one of the first African-American women to author a bestseller.

Angelou used her new voice to explore the effects of racism and sexism on personal identity. One such work was her 1978 poem, “And Still I Rise.”

MAYA ANGELOU: Out of the huts of history’s shame, I rise. Up from a past rooted in pain, I rise. A black ocean, leaping and wide, welling and swelling, I bear in the tide. Leaving behind nights of terror and fear, I rise. Into a daybreak miraculously clear, I rise, bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave. I am the dream and the hope of the slave, and so, naturally, there I go rising.

JEFFREY BROWN: Angelou never went to college, but ultimately received more than 30 honorary degrees. She also became a prominent civil rights activist, Tony-nominated stage actress, college professor and frequent guest on television shows.

Along the way, her life intersected, in work and friendship, with a number of other well-known figures, from Malcolm X to Oprah Winfrey. In 2012, she spoke in a profile by PBS affiliate KQED from her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

MAYA ANGELOU: Friendship, it keeps you alive, it keeps you awake, it keeps you trying to be the best. And in the middle of the night, when you’re lonely and most — and feel most — most at odds with yourself and with life and even with God, you can call a friend.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 2011, President Obama presented Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.

Today, the president called her a — quote — “brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman.”

Maya Angelou died this morning at her Winston-Salem home. She was 86 years old.