Former President Bill Clinton told mourners during Maya Angelou’s memorial service Saturday that “God wanted his voice back.”
The poet, author and civil rights activist was honored at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where she taught for the past three decades.
Clinton recalled walking up to Angelou, who had been ill for some time, and expressed disbelief that she made it to the event.
“Just because I’m wheel chair bound doesn’t mean I can’t get around,” Angelou responded.
Clinton noted Angelou’s early hardships and adventures but hailed her ability to advocate for civil justice.
“I often thought of her gigantic figure as those fireflies we see during the summer that makes us see something that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen,” he said. “She called our attention to things that really matter like dignity, love and worth.”
First Lady Michelle Obama delivered Angelou's eulogy and talked about her inspirational influence.
“She touched me, she touched all of you, and people all across the globe including a white woman from Kansas who named her daughter after Maya and raised her son to be the first black President of the United States,” she said, referencing Obama’s sister, Maya Kassandra Soetoro-Ng.
The first lady told the crowd she stopped idolizing Barbies as a young girl once she read Angelou’s poem, Phenomenal Woman.
“Words so powerful that they carried a little black girl from Chicago all the way to the White House,” she said. "And today as first lady whenever the term authentic is applied to me I take it as a compliment because I follow in the footsteps of women like Maya Angelou.”
Oprah Winfrey also spoke during the memorial, and said she first met and interviewed Angelou as a reporter in Baltimore.
Since then, their relationship developed from professional admiration to a mother-daughter bond.
“She was my anchor so it’s hard to describe to you what it means when your anchor chips,” said a tearful Winfrey. “But I realized this morning that I don’t really have to put it into words. What I have to do is live it.”
Angelou died on May 28 in her North Carolina home at the age of 86.
This story was updated at 12:30 p.m.