Dr. Maya Angelou



Special to South Florida Times

Of course, every date on the calendar, like every person born on earth, is special and unique, but April 4 in American history is a date like no other for the memories and lessons that it brings, which we ignore or forget at our peril if we do.

It is a date for celebration and gratitude, for fond memories as well as for somber reflection and resolve.


To begin with the celebration, today is the birth date of one of America’s most inspiring and beloved icons, the late renowned author, poet ,singer,dancer, actress, director, legendarily courageous activist for social justice and generous philanthropist Dr. Maya Angelou, who was born in St. Louis, MO, 89 years ago on this date in 1928.
Dr. Angelou’s outspoken fearlessness in “speaking truth to power” was both a source and a product of her deep commitment to constant learning, begun in her childhood, as she welcomed knowledge from all cultures and historical periods, reminding us that this treasure is the birthright and the gift to which each of us is entitled. She, of course, made her own celebrated cultural contributions to the uplift of humanity, notably with her autobiographical works and poetry translated into many languages, like the famous memoir of her childhood “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” or the poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” composed for and delivered at the first inauguration of president William Jefferson Clinton.

Yet, all of her accomplishments as a public figure and global celebrity are even less remembered by the many who were fortunate enough to attend her lectures and performances, or to have met Dr. Maya Angelou personally, than her uncanny gift for bringing such a real sense of joy and empowerment into the lives she touched directly.

Audiences large and small would leave encounters with her feeling stronger than before, uplifted by her wisdom, her knowledge, her deep understanding of human failings and greatness alike, and her challenge to be and live as the better selves that she would invariably help each person to appreciate that we are.


It is small wonder, then, that a young, talented, purposeful Maya Angelou, who, living in New York where she had become a member of the energetic Harlem Writers Guild, would become fast friends with the Rev. Dr. Martin

Luther King Jr. whose work she supported from the outset of the nonviolent Civil Rights struggle, and who asked her to become the Northern Coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the organization which he and other clergy established to carry the success of the Montgomery bus boycott throughout the South to eliminate the scourge of segregation and discrimination, and subsequently to fight for economic justice for the poor throughout the nation.


It cannot be guessed what depth of personal devastation Dr. Angelou experienced when, on the evening of April 4, 1968, as she made preparations to celebrate her 40th birthday in New York, the shocking news came that her dear friend Martin had been murdered by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, TN, where he traveled to support a brave but contentious strike by that city’s sanitation workers.

Her pain may have been felt less personally by the millions around the world who received the alarming report that a man whose entire life’s work was dedicated to peace, nonviolence, and love in the face of hatred, had been so violently murdered; but the response, from a global outpouring of heartfelt sympathy and memorial ceremonies to angry rebellions erupting in American cities, served notice that this was a turning point in human history, in a year that would become even more tumultuous, and that we would be challenged thenceforth to carry on Dr. King’s inspiring legacy, continuing his unfinished work for social and economic justice in very different circumstances.

It is hardly surprising that one of the dedicated and effective individuals to carry that work forward was one who was among the most deeply affected by the loss of Dr. King, the supremely talented, courageous, and generous Dr. Maya Angelou herself. She used her genius to reach so many. She set the example, as it were, of what needed to be done to rise from such devastation and to heal others in the process, which she did right up to the time of her death in 2014 at age 86.

As cruel and improbable as it may seem for the inspiring birthday of one icon and the untimely death of another to come together on the same date, April 4 has an even deeper, and more nefarious symbolic significance.

Even on the 49th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination (as we begin the 50th anniversary year, a time for profound assessments), it is not widely known that the date, and very nearly the hour of his murder, was exactly one year to the day after he delivered the most controversial (and some say the best) speech of his life, entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” at Riverside Church in New

York, on April 4, 1967, in which he boldly condemned the immorality, absurdity, and injustice of an intransigent war being waged on a poor country 8,000 miles away, with such a needless sacrifice of American lives, mostly poor, and such a needless expenditure of resources that were needed to improve life here in the United States.

With eloquence and evidence, Dr. King defied all warnings and fears and chose, as a moral leader, to remain silent no longer in the face of such a flagrant and massive crime against humanity, when many thought that he should stick to Civil Rights and “Colored people’s business,” and counseled him against “endangering his own people by bringing the enormous impact of his leadership to join the Peace and Antiwar movements which ultimately brought an end to Lyndon Johnson’s presidency (who had courageously signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts into law).

On April 4, we observe the 50th anniversary of that speech by Dr. King, which, in spite of its specific references to players who may seem mysterious to younger generations – Ho Chi Minh, Premier Diem, the national Liberation Front or Viet Cong, etc. – conveys a message that is even more timely and relevant today, as a current administration in Washington envisions cutting funds to government programs that benefit the poor and needy in order to pour more funds into weapons of destruction.

These two exemplars of human achievement and encouragement, Dr. King and Dr. Angelou, were remembered on April 4, a date that has brought them fatefully together, and with their remembrance comes the resolve that their work of spreading joy and justice must continue in our time, and that their lives and inspiration will not be forgotten.