April 4, 1928 to May 28, 2014
In 1960 Maya Angelou, a single mother and struggling actress, accepted the position of northern coordinator for the New York office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). It was in this capacity that Angelou first met Martin Luther King. Although she worked with SCLC for only six months, King was “grateful” for her contribution, particularly the coordination of several fundraising ventures (Angelou, 107).
Born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, on 4 April 1928, Angelou was raised by her paternal grandmother after her parents divorced. At age 16 Angelou gave birth to a son, Guy, and took various jobs to help support him. After moving to New York to pursue a dancing career, she was cast in a production of Porgy and Bess that toured Europe and Africa.
After hearing King speak at a church in Harlem in early 1960, Angelou resolved to help SCLC raise funds by staging a revue, “Cabaret for Freedom.” The revue was a rousing success, with well-known black celebrities Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Lorraine Hansberry attending opening night.
Following Bayard Rustin’s departure from SCLC in 1960, Angelou succeeded him as director of the New York office. After two months on the job, Angelou met King on one of his visits to New York. In her autobiography, The Heart of a Woman, she discussed her first impressions of King: “He was shorter than I expected and so young. He had an easy friendliness, which was unsettling” (Angelou, 107).
In late 1960 Angelou met Vusumzi Make, a South African freedom fighter. The two were married in January 1961. That month Angelou officially resigned from her position and wished King, SCLC, and the cause “a year of unlimited strides.” In poetic style typical of Angelou, she closed the letter: “I join with millions of black people the world over in saying ‘You are our leader’” (Angelou, 31 January 1961).
In 1962, Angelou moved to Cairo with Guy and her new husband and took a job as editor of the Arab Observer, a position she held for over a year. After her marriage ended, Angelou and her son lived in Ghana for several years before moving back to the United States in 1966. Her first novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published in 1970 to critical acclaim. Angelou went on to write four other volumes of her autobiography, published several volumes of poetry, and appeared on Broadway and in films. Angelou served as Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, from 1981 until her death in May 2014.
Angelou, Heart of a Woman, 1981.
Angelou to King and Wyatt Tee Walker, 31 January 1961, MLKP-MBU.