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If you like Maya Angelou's story, you might also like:
Benjamin Carson,
Rita Dove,
Ernest J. Gaines,
Louise Glück,
Lauryn Hill,
Naomi Judd,
Coretta Scott King,
John R. Lewis,
W.S. Merwin,
N. Scott Momaday,
Jessye Norman,
Rosa Parks,
Sidney Poitier,
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,
Wole Soyinka,
Esperanza Spalding,
Amy Tan,
Elie Wiesel and
Oprah Winfrey

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Maya Angelou in the Achievement Curriculum area:
The Road to Civil Rights
Martin Luther King Day

Maya Angelou also appears in the videos:
The Content of Your Character

A Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Vol. I

A Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,Vol. II

Related Links:
Maya Angelou - Official Website

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Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou
Profile of Maya Angelou Biography of Maya Angelou Interview with Maya Angelou Maya Angelou Photo Gallery

Maya Angelou Interview

Poet and Historian

January 22, 1997
High Point, North Carolina

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  Maya Angelou

Dr. Angelou, you worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. What was Dr. King really like, personally?

Maya Angelou: Dr. King was a human being. He had a sense of humor which was wonderful. It is very dangerous to make a person larger than life because, then, young men and women are tempted to believe, well, if he was that great, he's inaccessible, and I can never try to be that or emulate that or achieve that. The truth is, Martin Luther King was a human being with a brilliant mind, a powerful heart, and insight, and courage and also with a sense of humor. So he was accessible. I mentioned courage, and I would like to say something else about that, finding courage in the leaders and in you who will become leaders. Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can't practice any other virtues consistently. You see? You can't be consistently kind or fair or humane or generous, not without courage, because if you don't have it, sooner or later you will stop and say, "Eh, the threat is too much. The difficulty is too high. The challenge is too great." So I would like to say that Dr. King, while we know from all the publicity that he was brilliant, and he was powerful, and he was passionate and right, he was also a funny man, and that's nice to know.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

How old were you when you met Dr. King?

Maya Angelou: I was about 27, I think. I was much younger in my mind than I was in my body. I had a big Afro. It was so large that if the wind caught me wrong, it could have lifted me off the ground. I was pleased to have the chance to work for him.

He was also very young at that time. He was only 34 at the time he gave the "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, and he was already well into the movement.

Maya Angelou: Oh, yes. He was very young and very personable, so that he was really humble.

I don't think modesty is a very good virtue, if it is a virtue at all. A modest person will drop the modesty in a minute. You see, it's a learned affectation. But humility comes from inside out. Humility says there was someone before me, someone found the path, someone made the road before me, and I have the responsibility of making the road for someone who is yet to come. Dr. King was really humble so that he was accessible to everybody. The smallest child could come up to him, the most powerful person could come up to him, he never changed. If somebody very rich and very powerful said, "Dr. King, I want to speak to you," he was the same person to that person as he would be to one of you who is 16, 17, if you would say, "Dr. King..." He was still accessible, gentle, powerful, humble.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Which of these qualities do you think made him the leader he was?

Maya Angelou: Courage would be the first of his many wondrous and wonderful qualities that I would list.

I am convinced that courage is the most important of all the virtues. Because without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently. You can be kind for a while; you can be generous for a while; you can be just for a while, or merciful for a while, even loving for a while. But it is only with courage that you can be persistently and insistently kind and generous and fair.

Maya Angelou Interview Photo
Courage is often lonely. Do you sense that he knew how alone he was when the struggle was starting?

Maya Angelou: It's always lonely, I think. Those who have something to say accept the fact that that's lonely. One already knows that there will be adversaries. And according to what is at stake, the adversaries will be more violent or less violent. One is sustained though, in the belief that what one has to say is right, and right for the most people. And then, one is sustained by one's loved ones. Dr. King had, first, his wife and family, and then, the people who loved him, really, really loved him. I think that they and their undying, unswerving love sustained him, even in the loneliest of moments.

What other qualities do you think made him an effective leader?

Maya Angelou: Intelligence, a very profound intelligence. Now, that does not always go hand-in-hand with intellect. With Dr. King, it did. But I point out that intelligence is a separate gift, for the benefit of students, so that they may think of themselves as intellectual and not very intelligent, or intelligent and not very intellectual. One hopes, of course, that they try to bring the two virtues, the two elements, into their lives at the same time.

Dr. King was profoundly intelligent. That is to say, he was able to see, to examine, to analyze, to evaluate, to measure the climate of the times, the expediency of his calling, of his ministry. That's intelligence. Now intellect, of course, helped him to be able to explain what he saw with grace and eloquence and wonderful quotations, whether from Paul Laurence Dunbar or Longfellow. That was out of the virtue of his studies.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Would you say he was also unusually empathetic? He cared deeply how others were treated.

Maya Angelou: Yes. This is true. He cared about women. He cared about the poor. He cared about the Spanish-speaking. He cared about Jews. He cared about poor whites, the miners, and those who were having a very hard time. So that even as he was assassinated, he was planning a March on Washington, called the "Poor People's March," in which he had encouraged African Americans, white Americans, Spanish-speaking, Native Americans, Asian Americans, all of us, to join and go to Washington, and sit there in tent cities in the nation's capital, until something was done for the poor.

I think some of the aspects of Dr. King which are rarely mentioned are necessary for young men and women to know about. Dr. King was not only a man of high moral values and, of course, intelligence and spirituality, he was also very funny. Very few people really know that he had a wonderful sense of humor and appreciated a good laugh, and I think that's important for young men and women to know, because the Bible says, "A cheerful spirit is good medicine." Dr. King, in the face of the most horrid situations, the most cruel people, the most greedy and mean-spirited, he kept his spirit up, and quite often, with a wonderful smile.

How did Dr. King influence your life?

Maya Angelou Interview Photo
Maya Angelou: It is not a past tense for me. Dr. King continues to have an impact on my life, as he does upon the lives of many people in the world. A dream -- an idea -- never dies. It might go in or out of fashion, but it remains. So his idea of fair play and justice still impacts upon me. He was a friend of mine, I worked with him. And Ms. Coretta Scott King is a sister-friend of mine today, so we are in sisterly touch. The ideas which he embodied and subsequently gave to the world are ideas I am still trying to flesh out in my own life. I am trying to be that fair person, that kind person, that generous, courageous person, that loving person that Martin Luther King, Jr. was and encouraged us to become.

Do you feel that Dr. King can have the same influence on succeeding generations? What do you think is the most important thing young people should learn from him?

Maya Angelou: The effect of a great man or woman is not always visible. The fact that we are having this conversation is evidence that his impact has reached hundreds of millions of people. I pray that out of this kind of discussion and the various celebrations of Dr. King, a young person may decide to make life better, just for a minute and just in the place where you are. Don't think of having to be grown up and having to have power and money and prestige and a name and all that. Don't believe that is the only way that you can make a difference. You can start right now, just where you are, being a better person yourself, being kinder, being more courteous, trying to be a better student, so that you will make an impact yourself on your nation, on your race, on your gender, and in fact, on the world. That is where we see the impact of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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