Maya Angelou, poet and civil rights advocate, dies at 86

Poet, memoirist and performer Maya Angelou has died at age 86, Wake Forest University announced Wednesday. The multi-talented artist was also a celebrated civil rights advocate and pioneer.

As a poet, Angelou was best known for reading at President Clinton's inauguration in 1993. She was the first African American woman to have that honor, and the first poet to read at the inauguration since Robert Frost more than three decades earlier. The work she composed for the occasion, "On the Pulse of Morning," sold more than 1 million copies and its recording won a Grammy Award.


But Angelou was also known as a prose writer, for her 1969 memoir, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." The book, written after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and with the encouragement of her friend James Baldwin, told of her upbringing, facing racism and sexual abuse.

Angelou was born on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis and raised there and in Stamps, Ark., by her grandmother. Her grandmother was relatively well-off, but the family was subject to casual racism and the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. As she wrote in her memoir, at age 8, Angelou was raped by her mother's boyfriend, who was sent to jail for the crime; upon his release, he was beaten to death, possibly by her uncles.

Angelou won a scholarship to an arts school in San Francisco, which she left briefly to become the city's first female African American cable car conductor. She gave birth to a son, who she raised on her own, shortly after graduating from high school.

In her early years, Angelou proved to be a multi-talented performer. She toured Europe as a singer in the opera "Porgy and Bess," danced with Alvin Ailey and recorded an album, "Calypso Lady," acted off-Broadway and joined the Harlem Writers Guild.

From 1960 through 1964 she worked abroad, in Egypt and Ghana. She returned to the U.S. to help Malcolm X set up an African American university, but he was assassinated. She was then enlisted by King to serve as a regional coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Angelou's creative career took off after the publication of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" -- she wrote articles, screenplays, short stories and songs. She continued to perform, appearing in the television series "Roots" and getting a Tony Award nomination for a stage role in New York.

Angelou's many books include the poetry collections "And Still I Rise," "Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die" "Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well" and "I Shall Not Be Moved," six memoirs collected in a 2004 omnibus edition and a memoir published in 2013, "Mom & Me & Mom."

She had been scheduled to appear at Major League Baseball's Awards luncheon on Friday, where she was to be honored with the Beacon of Light award for her civil rights work.