WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — First lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton were among the speakers honoring poet, author and civil rights champion Maya Angelou at a private memorial service in North Carolina on Saturday.
Media magnate Oprah Winfrey and actress Cicely Tyson also paid tribute to their friend and mentor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, where Angelou taught for three decades, according to the program for the service.
Singers Lee Ann Womack and BeBe Winans were among the performers.
Clinton in his eulogy praised Angelou for her belief in dignity, love and kindness, and spoke of a time in Angelou’s childhood when she could not speak.
“And then she developed the greatest voice on the planet,” Clinton said. “God loaned her His voice. She had the voice of God, and He decided he wanted it back for awhile.”
Angelou wrote the poem “On the Pulse of Morning” and read it at Clinton’s first presidential inauguration in 1993.
She was 86 when she died at her home on May 28.
Angelou was best known for her 1969 autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” about growing up in the segregated South. That pioneering work helped give black women writers a literary voice and became a reading list staple in American classrooms.
The memoir was among a body of work including more than 30 books of fiction and poetry produced by Angelou during her prodigious career. She also was a Tony-nominated stage actress, Grammy Award winner for three spoken-word albums, civil rights activist, streetcar conductor, Calypso singer, dancer, movie director and playwright.
Michelle Obama told attendees at the service that Angelou’s inspirational message sustained her throughout her life, including when she became a mother and when she joined her husband on the campaign trail.
“For me that was the power of Maya Angelou’s words, words so powerful that they carried a little black girl from the South Side of Chicago all the way to the White House,” Michelle Obama said.
In 2011, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, was bestowed upon Angelou by President Barack Obama.
After her death, Obama said he and the first lady cherished the time they had spent with Angelou, for whom the president said his sister was named.
Winfrey called Angelou her “mentor, mother/sister and friend.”
Angelou served as a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest since 1982, and had planned to teach a course on race, culture and gender this fall, the university said.