May 28th, 2014
02:21 PM ET
6 months ago

Maya Angelou's deep ties with Bill Clinton, politics

Washington (CNN) – On a chilly Washington, D.C. morning in January 1993, Maya Angelou's five-minute poem at Bill Clinton's inauguration turned the already accomplished author and poet into a national icon.

Standing on the West Front of the Capitol, Angelou became the first African-American and first woman inaugural poet when she read "On the Pulse of Morning," a poem she wrote for the new president. The five-minute reading was only the second time a poet has read at a presidential inauguration.

"History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again," Angelou proclaimed. "Lift up your eyes upon the day breaking for you."

Angelou would later say that the poem was meant to be both inspirational and realistic, to touch upon some of the United States’ dark past and her hope for the future. In the five-minute reading, Angelou preached inclusion and concluded with an uplifting message that reflected Clinton's inaugural address and his vision for the presidency.

"Here on the pulse of this new day you may have the grace to look up and out and into your sister's eyes, into your brother's face, your country say simply, very simply, with hope – Good morning," she concluded.

Angelou died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on Wednesday at the age of 86. She was remembered as a novelist, actress, professor, singer, dancer and activist – but to Bill Clinton, her relationship was deeper than just her inaugural reading.

Clinton specifically requested Angelou for his inauguration in 1993 and after news of her death broke Wednesday, the former president reflected on their friendship in a statement.

"With Maya Angelou’s passing, America has lost a national treasure; and Hillary and I, a beloved friend," Clinton said, referring to his wife and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. "The poems and stories she wrote and read to us in her commanding voice were gifts of wisdom and wit, courage and grace."

He continued: "I will always be grateful for her electrifying reading of “On the Pulse of Morning” at my first inaugural, and even more for all the years of friendship that followed. Now she sings the songs the Creator gave to her when the river 'and the tree and the stone were one.'"

One aspect of Clinton and Angelou's relationship is that they both had deep Arkansas roots. Though raised in dramatically different circumstances, both also broke out of their troubled upbringings in rural Arkansas to ascend to the heights of their professions.

Clinton was born into a troubled family in Hope, Arkansas – his biological father, Bill Blythe, Jr., died before he was born and he was raised by Roger Clinton, Sr., an alcoholic and abusive stepfather.

Angelou was born April 4, 1928, in St. Louis. She grew up between St. Louis and the then-racially segregated town of Stamps, Arkansas. As she outlines in her novel "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," Angelou's upbringing in the Jim Crow South was one of racism and prejudice.

The famous poet got into writing after a childhood tragedy that stunned her into silence for years. When she was 7, her mother's boyfriend raped her. He was beaten to death by a mob after she testified against him.

But Angelou's book is a coming of age story that shows her strength in the face of adversity.

"Anything that works against you can also work for you once you understand the Principle of Reverse," she wrote.

After Clinton left the White House in 2000, the Clinton-Angelou relationship continued and reached a high point during the 2008 presidential election, when the famed poet endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.

"Let me tell you about my girl, Hillary Clinton," Angelou said in a radio ad for the campaign. "As a child, Hillary Clinton was taught that all God's children are equal, so as a mother she understood that her child wasn't safe unless all children were safe."

She concluded: "I am inspired by Hillary Clinton – a daughter, a wife, a mother – my girl."

Angelou was a high profile supporter for Clinton and she announced her support for the former first lady in a YouTube video in 2007.

"I have known Maya for many years and have been honored by her friendship. I'm thrilled to have her support in my campaign," Clinton said at the time.

As one of the nation's most influential poets, Angelou's political life extended beyond the Clintons.

She read her poem "Amazing Peace" at the 2005 White House Christmas tree lighting ceremony and spoke at the 2008 Democratic National Convention as a tribute to Fannie Lou Hamer, famed civil rights activist.

"In the sequestered, most private heart of every American lives a burning desire to belong to a great country, to represent a noble-minded country where the mighty do not always crush the weak and the dream of a democracy is not in the sole possession of the strong," Angelou told the audience in Boston.

Bill Clinton awarded Angelou the National Medal of Arts in 2000 and President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 2010.

Despite endorsing Clinton and occasionally critiquing Obama's policies, she told the Guardian in 2012 that just seeing a picture of Obama as President "has done so much good for the spirit of the African American."

"His physical self, just being there, his photograph in the newspapers as President of the United States," she said. "We see more and more children wanting to be like President Obama, wanting to go to school."


Filed under: Bill Clinton • Hillary Clinton
soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. Wake Up People! Many Rivers to cross.....

    One of my heroes! I love you Mrs. Angelou and I always will. You will never know how much of an inspiration you were in my life. I read " I still know why the caged bird sings" when I was about 11 and I have never forgotten it nor has the impact of it ever left my mind. Go now and sleep with the angels, of which you are now one of. I truly wish I could have met you.

    May 28, 2014 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  2. Gurgyl

    The best president in USA history. More surplus no wars, lots of jobs. What more you want, America.

    May 28, 2014 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  3. Sniffit

    "for life's not a paragraph
    and death I think is no parenthesis"

    Her legend can be contained by neither. Words fail.

    May 28, 2014 02:52 pm at 2:52 pm |
  4. YUCK

    peace,love,unity and respect that's how our creator wants us to be.(rip Ms.Maya Angelou)and may the oppressors be recognized by their bad deeds and lies and all that is evilness."bless are the peace makers."

    May 28, 2014 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  5. Wake Up People! Many Rivers to cross.....

    I'm a woman phenomenally. Phenomenal woman that's me.

    May 28, 2014 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  6. Fed up

    Rest in peace Maya Angelou. You were one in a billion...

    May 28, 2014 03:08 pm at 3:08 pm |
  7. Lynda/Minnesota

    "Lift up your eyes upon the day breaking for you."

    And you also, Maya Angelou.

    May 28, 2014 03:09 pm at 3:09 pm |
  8. deee510

    God bless her soul

    May 28, 2014 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  9. DaveinIL

    It always bothers me when "poetry" doesn't have any rhymes.

    May 28, 2014 04:11 pm at 4:11 pm |