After the assassination of her husband, civil rights leader Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz (1936-1997) persevered to raise her six children, receive her doctorate, and continue a career, all the while staying true to her values as a member of the Nation of Islam religion. She chose mainly to operate outside of the spotlight, but made occasional appearances to promote civil rights and to relate her husband's message to the public.
When Betty Shabazz married the dynamic civil rights leader Malcolm X, she could not anticipate the extent of her husband's fame or the course that their lives would take. Shabazz was catapulted into the American consciousness and the media spotlight following her husband's assassination in 1965 by three members of the Nation of Islam. Formerly an esteemed leader of the Nation, Malcolm broke with the black nationalist organization in 1963 after revising his separatist ideals and embracing a new philosophy of global unity. His young widow, pregnant with twin daughters at the time of his murder, was left to raise them—and their four sisters—by herself. In the ensuing years, Shabazz avoided publicity when she could, opting instead to provide a quiet, normal home life and full education for her children.
Shabazz was born on May 28, 1936, in Detroit, Michigan. As an adopted child who grew up in a fairly sheltered, middle-class household in Detroit, her early social life consisted of the local Methodist church with her parents on Sundays, parties on some Saturday nights with church friends, and movies on Fridays. While attending Northern High School, she joined the Del Sprites, a sorority affiliate. After high school graduation, she attended Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and encountered her first racial hostilities, which she didn't understand, and her parents refused to acknowledge. "They thought [the problems] were my fault," she later wrote in an autobiographical portrait printed in Essence magazine. After two years in Alabama, she moved to New York City to attend nursing school at Brooklyn State Hospital.
While at school in New York, a friend invited her to hear Malcolm X speak at an Islamic temple. When this friend said she'd arrange for them to be introduced after his speech, Betty's initial reaction was "big deal," she related in Essencein 1992. "But then," she continued, "I looked over and saw this man on the extreme right aisle sort of galloping to the podium. He was tall, he was thin, and the way he was galloping it looked as though he was going someplace much more important than the podium…. Well, he got to the podium—and I sat up straight. I was impressed with him." They were introduced later, and she became even more impressed. They talked about the racism she encountered in Alabama, and she began to understand its causes, pervasiveness, and effects. Soon Betty was attending all of Malcolm's lectures. By the time she graduated from nursing school in 1958, she was a member of the Nation of Islam.
Betty Shabazz explained in Essence, "I never 'dated' Malcolm as we think of it because at the time single men and women in the Muslims did not 'fraternize' as they called it. Men and women always went out in groups." In addition, Malcolm was busy with a relentless schedule of speaking engagements for the Nation of Islam. Nevertheless, their connection grew strong. Soon after she finished nursing school, Malcolm, who was traveling the country at the time, called her from Detroit and proposed. Before the week was out, they were married.
They were not together as long as either had hoped. On February 21, 1965, while speaking at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, Malcolm X was gunned down. Shabazz had brought their four daughters to hear him speak that day. As the first of the gunshots rang out, she threw her children down and covered them with her own body. After the shooting ended, she tried to help her husband, but someone held her back. When she finally did reach him, he was dead, and she wondered if she would survive herself.
For three weeks, Shabazz did not sleep. She kept seeing her husband's body fall. "I really don't know where I'd be today if I had not gone to Mecca to make Hajj [a spiritual pilgrimage] shortly after Malcolm was assassinated," she confided in Essence. "Two young doctors—one from Harvard and the other from Dartmouth—invited me to go to Mecca in my husband's stead. And that is what helped put me back on track. I remembered Malcolm saying, 'Don't look back and don't cry. Remember, Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt.' I began to understand the meaning of that statement." She also had six daughters to raise. (The twin daughters were born seven months after their father's death; Attallah, Malcolm and Betty's eldest daughter, was only six at the time of the assassination.)
After returning from Mecca, Shabazz did not allow herself to grieve further—at least not visibly; her children needed her strength. "The girls knew only that something terrible had happened," she told Look magazine a few years after his death. "After the shock, as I became aware again, I tried to soothe them. I couldn't let them see hysteria on my part. Later, I learned that I had to adopt a personality of positiveness and high humor. For, if I laughed, they laughed…. I learned that I couldn't even express sadness around them. I didn't want them to worry." She threw herself into their care and education. They studied French and Arabic, as well as ballet. Attallah even took classes in medicine offered to children by Columbia University.
The Shabazz children also studied black history. "Malcolm was a firm believer in the value and importance of our heritage. He believed that we have valuable and distinct cultural traditions which need to be institutionalized so that they can be passed on to our heirs." Shabazz further explained her educational perspective to Ebony in 1969: "I … want them to travel so they can know more about Africa, the West Indies and the Middle East. I want them to go to some of the places that their father visited. In this way I feel they will broaden their scope and become of maximum use to themselves, their families, and their people."
Although raising and educating her daughters took up most of her time, Shabazz still managed to further her education. Between 1970 and 1975, she completed a master's degree in public health administration and received a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In 1976, she joined the faculty of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn as associate professor of health administration. Shortly thereafter, she became director of the school's Department of Communications and Public Relations.
Although Shabazz made occasional appearances on behalf of civil rights, she remained a private person, preferring the intimacy of her family and close friends to any suggestion of public life. She was, however, "committed to the broadest possible distribution [of Malcolm's message]" as she told Publishers Weekly in 1991. She also wanted to protect his image from base commercialization. She served as a consultant on the Spike Lee film Malcolm X, which opened in 1992, and also hired a licensing firm to help maintain some control over the use of his name. In the following years, she entered into several legal battles over copyright infringements of his writings, name, and the symbol X.As she told the Washington Post, the marketing of his image had "gotten out of hand."
In 1994, nearly 30 years after the assassination of Malcolm X, Shabazz spoke out in a television interview for the first time against the Nation of Islam and linked Nation leader Louis Farrakhan to his death. It was known for years, however, that she had suspected Farrakhan of some involvement in the killing. Farrakhan denied the allegations, claiming only that the turbulent, racially hostile atmosphere of the 1960s was responsible for Malcolm's end. Then in January of 1995, Shabazz's daughter, Qubilah, was accused of hiring a hit man to murder Farrakhan, whom she said was planning to kill her mother. Charges were later dropped when Qubilah signed a plea agreement maintaining her innocence but admitting some responsibility in the plot against Farrakhan. In May of 1995, Betty Shabazz and Farrakhan shook hands at a fundraiser at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, thus ending decades of hostile feelings. Jet reported that Shabazz said to Farrakhan at the event, "May the god of our forefathers forever guide you on your journey."
In many respects Betty Shabazz's adult life was defined by her relatively brief marriage to Malcolm X; she did, however, built her own life and success, and found contentment. "My life today is very peaceful," she told Essence. "I'm a Sunni [orthodox] Muslim and as observant as I can be…. I've made pilgrimage. I acknowledge the oneness of God. I pray. I contribute to charity. I fast. And I work hard."
Shabazz, who saw her husband assasinated and sought to preserve his memory and teachings in life that became a symbol of perseverance to African Americans, died on June 23, 1997, at a Bronx hospital, three weeks after suffering extensive burns in a fire apparently set by her troubled 12-year-old grandson. Her death was met with an outpouring of grief and solemn statements by her family, political and civil rights leaders, colleagues and friends, and hundreds of ordinary people whose lives she had touched.
Further Reading on Betty Shabazz
Ebony, June 1969, p. 172; February 1984, p. 127; November 1995, pp. 62, 64.
Essence, May 1979, p. 88; February 1985, p. 12; February 1992, pp. 50+.
Jet, October 5, 1992, p. 36; April 5, 1993, p. 46; May 22, 1995, pp. 12-13.
Look, March 4, 1969, p. 74.
New York Times, June 24, 1997.
Publishers Weekly, August 9, 1991, p. 13; October 18, 1991, p. 14.
Rolling Stone, November 30, 1989, p. 76
Variety, November 23, 1992, p. 62.
Washington Post, November 18, 1992, p. C1.
Associated Press wire report, April 3, 1994.