5 Crowning Achievements of Maya Angelou

In anticipation of PBS' American Masters premiere of 'Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise,' we explore some of the poet's most famous accomplishments.
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Maya Angelou Photo

American poet and author Maya Angelou during an interview at her home in 1978.

Considered to be one of the most consequential figures of the 20th century, Maya Angelou had a diverse career spanning five decades — first as a singer and dancer, then as a journalist and civil rights activist, and later as a memoirist, poet and screenwriter.

Tonight PBS' American Masters celebrates the life and legacy of Maya Angelou with its documentary feature, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise.

As a precursor to the premiere, here's a look at five monumental achievements of the late Angelou, who died at the age of 86 in 2014.

She was a Civil Rights Activist

Having traveled the world and met with Malcolm X while living in Ghana, Maya Angelou returned to the U.S. in 1964 to help the black leader in his political efforts. However, soon after she arrived stateside, Malcolm X was assassinated.

Despite his death, Angelou continued working with the Civil Rights Movement and helped fundraise for Martin Luther King, Jr. Unfortunately, the young artist found herself devastated once again, when King was murdered on her birthday in 1968. It was during this time that novelist James Baldwin encouraged Angelou to write and she began work on I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

'Caged Bird' became one of the most prominent autobiographies ever written

Recalling her childhood experiences growing up in Arkansas to becoming a mother at 16, Angelou published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969. It became an instant bestseller and stayed on the New York Times paperback bestseller list for the next two years. Nominated for a National Book Award in 1970, it is considered her most famous work. In 2011, Time magazine ranked it as one of the most influential books of modern times.

She was the first black woman to write a screenplay for a major film release

In 1972 Angelou expanded her writing and musical talents by writing and scoring Georgia, Georgia, a Swedish-American drama that would later be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She would go on to write for television, theatre, and would eventually reach her goal of directing a film with Down in the Delta in 1998.

She was the first female inaugural poet in U.S. presidential history

In 1993 Angelou recited her poem, "On the Pulse of Morning," for President Bill Clinton's inauguration. She became the first African-American poet and first female poet to participate in a recitation for a U.S. president's inauguration. The only inaugural poet that came before her was Robert Frost who recited "The Gift Outright" during President John F. Kennedy's ceremony in 1961.

She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011

Having garnered a plethora of prestigious literary and humanitarian awards as well as over 50 honorary degrees, Angelou was bestowed the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom the following year by President Barack Obama. The award is distinguished as the highest civilian honor in the United States.