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US honors Maya Angelou, the nation's wise woman

NEW YORK -- Maya Angelou walked into a meeting of civil rights leaders discussing affirmative action back in the 1990s, looked around, and put them all in their place with a single, astute observation.

“She came into the room,” recalled Al Sharpton, “and she said: 'The first problem is you don't have women in here of equal status. We need to correct you before you can correct the country.'”

Angelou, who died Wednesday at 86, made an impact on American culture that transcended her poetry and searing memoirs. She was the nation's wise woman, a poet to presidents, an unapologetic conscience who became such a touchstone that grief over her loss poured from political leaders, celebrities and ordinary people in generous doses.

“Above all, she was a storyteller — and her greatest stories were true,” U.S. President Barack Obama said.

Never hesitant to speak her mind, Angelou passionately defended the rights of women, young people and the ignored. She effortlessly traversed the worlds of literature and activism, becoming a confidante to the original civil rights leaders, their successors and the current generation.

“I've seen many things, I've learned many things,” Angelou told The Associated Press in 2013. “I've certainly been exposed to many things and I've learned something: I owe it to you to tell you.”

Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, remembered the “incredibly powerful experience” of being invited to Angelou's home. They sat at her kitchen table for hours, Morial said, as Angelou told stories and talked about life, art, culture and humankind.

“With equal parts majesty and humility, she held court — and I listened intently, absorbing every word and meaning that she had to impart,” Morial said.

A former singer and dancer — as well as once being the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco — she also put her imprint on the new world of celebrity, mentoring Oprah Winfrey, instructing Alicia Keys in “lining out,” a call-and-response form of singing popular in Southern black churches, acting in a television sketch with Richard Pryor, and inspiring singers, authors and actors of all races and genders.

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In this April 5 photo provided by the National Portrait Gallery, Cicely Tyson, Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey pose for a photo backstage at Angelou's portrait unveiling at the ...

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