Today Betty Shabazz is best known for being the widow of Malcolm X. But Shabazz overcame challenges before meeting her husband and after his death. Shabazz excelled in higher education despite being born to a teenage single mother and eventually pursued graduate studies that led her to become a college educator and administrator, all while raising six daughters on her own. In addition to her rise in academia, Shabazz remained active in the fight for civil rights, dedicating much of her time to helping the oppressed and underprivileged.
Early Life of Betty Shabazz: A Rough Start
Betty Shabazz was born Betty Dean Sanders to Ollie Mae Sanders and Shelman Sandlin. Her place of birth and birth date are under dispute, as her birth records were lost, but her birth date is believed to be May 28, 1934, and her birthplace either Detroit or Pinehurst, Ga. Like her future husband Malcolm X, Shabazz endured a difficult childhood. Her mother reportedly abused her and at age 11 she was removed from her care and placed in the home of a middle-class black couple named Lorenzo and Helen Malloy.
A New Beginning
Although life with the Malloys gave Shabazz an opportunity to pursue higher education, she felt disconnected from the couple because they refused to discuss her brushes with racism as a student at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The Lorenzos, although involved in civil rights activism, evidently lacked the capacity to teach a young black child about how to cope with racism in U.S. society.
Raised all of her life in the North, the prejudice she encountered in the South proved too much for Shabazz. Accordingly, she dropped out of Tuskegee Institute, against the Malloys' wishes, and headed for New York City in 1953 to study nursing at Brooklyn State College School of Nursing. The Big Apple may have been a bustling metropolis, but Shabazz soon discovered that the Northern city wasn't immune to racism. She felt that the nurses of color received harsher assignments than their white counterparts with little of the respect afforded to others.
Shabazz began attending the Nation of Islam (NOI) events after friends told her about the black Muslims. In 1956 she met Malcolm X, who was nine years her senior. She quickly felt a connection to him. Unlike her adoptive parents, Malcolm X did not hesitate to discuss the evils of racism and its impact on African Americans. Shabazz no longer felt alienated for reacting so strongly to the bigotry she encountered in both the South and the North. Shabazz and Malcolm X routinely saw each other during group outings. Then in 1958, they married. Their marriage produced six daughters. Their youngest two, twins, were born after Malcolm X's assassination in 1965.
Malcolm X was a faithful devotee of the Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Muhammad for years. However, when Malcolm learned that Elijah Muhammad had seduced and fathered children with several women in the black Muslims, he parted ways with the group in 1964 and ultimately became a follower of conventional Islam. This break from NOI led to Malcolm X and his family receiving death threats and having their home firebombed. On Feb. 21, 1965, Malcolm's tormentors made good on their promise to end his life. As Malcolm X gave a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City that day, three members of the Nation of Islam shot him 15 times. Betty Shabazz and her daughters witnessed the assassination. Shabazz used her nursing training to try to revive him but it was no use. At the age of 39, Malcolm X was dead.
After her husband's murder, Betty Shabazz struggled to provide an income for her family. She eventually supported her daughters through proceeds from sales of Alex Haley's Autobiography of Malcolm X along with proceeds from the publication of her husband's speeches. Shabazz also made a concerted effort to better her self. She earned a bachelor's degree from Jersey City State College and a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts in 1975, teaching at Medgar Evers College before becoming an administrator.
She also traveled widely and gave speeches about civil rights and race relations. Shabazz also befriended the Coretta Scott King and Myrlie Evers, the widows of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers, respectively. The friendship of these “movement” widows was portrayed in Lifetime 2013 film “Betty & Coretta.”
Like Coretta Scott King, Shabazz did not believe that her husband's murderers received justice. Only one of the men convicted of Malcolm X's murder actually admitted to committing the crime and he, Thomas Hagan, has said the other men convicted of the crime are innocent. Shabazz long blamed NOI leaders such as Louis Farrakhan of having her husband killed, but he denied involvement.
In 1995 Shabazz's daughter Qubilah was arrested for trying to take justice into her own hands and have a hit man kill Farrakhan. Qubilah Shabazz avoided prison time by seeking treatment for drug and alcohol problems. Betty Shabazz reconciled with Farrakhan during a fundraiser at Harlem's Apollo Theater to pay for her daughter's defense. Betty Shabazz also appeared at Farrakhan's Million Man March event in 1995.
Given Qubilah Shabazz's troubles, her preteen son, Malcolm, was sent to live with Betty Shabazz. Unhappy with this new living arrangement, he set his grandmother's home ablaze on June 1, 1997. Shabazz suffered third-degree burns on 80 percent of her body, fighting for her life until June 23, 1997, when she succumbed to her injuries. She was 61.