Shabazz, Betty (1936–1997)

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Shabazz, Betty (1936–1997)

African-American civil-rights and education activist. Name variations: Betty Sanders; Sister Betty X. Born on May 28, 1936, in Detroit, Michigan; died on June 23, 1997, in New York, New York; attended Tuskegee Institute; received R.N. from Brooklyn State Hospital School of Nursing; earned master's degree in public health administration from Jersey City State College; received Ph.D. in education administration from University of Massachusetts; married Malcolm Little known as Malcolm X also known as Malik El-Shabazz (1925–1965, the Black Muslim leader), in 1958; children: six daughters, Attallah Shabazz; Qubilah Shabazz; Makaak Shabazz; Malikah Shabazz; Gamilah Shabazz; Ilayasah Shabazz.

Served as director of department of communications and public relations at Medgar Evers College and led the school's office of institutional advancement.

Betty Shabazz was a dedicated human-rights activist who came to national attention when her husband, Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, was assassinated while preaching in 1965. Shabazz, who was in the audience with her four children and pregnant with twins when the shots rang out, bent over to shield the children with her body. She not only raised the six children on her own and continued with her husband's civil-rights and political work, but also went on to become a dedicated leader on educational issues. Throughout her life, Betty Shabazz worked tirelessly to unite politically active black women. She "was so much more than Malcolm's widow," said Myrlie Evers-Williams .

Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1936, she was raised in a sheltered, middle-class, Methodist environment by her adoptive parents. Betty attended her father's alma mater, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where she had her first encounter with racism. Her parents were unable to acknowledge the problem and thought Betty was somehow to blame.

Betty moved to New York in the 1950s and continued her study of nursing at Brooklyn State Hospital. While she was still a student, a friend invited her to hear Malcolm X speak at an Islamic temple, and they were later introduced. Shabazz and Malcolm discussed the causes and effects of the racism she had encountered in Alabama; she became deeply interested in the issue, as well as in the Nation of Islam, and began to teach women's classes at Islamic Temple 7. Shabazz helped type and correct papers for Malcolm, and he helped plan discussion topics for her classes. Following Islamic principles, they never dated in the conventual sense but met only when chaperoned or with a group. After Shabazz finished nursing school, Malcolm proposed over the telephone while on a speaking engagement in Detroit. Although her parents were not in favor of the marriage because Malcolm was not a Methodist, they were married in 1958. Around the time of the wedding, Shabazz converted to Islam.

As Malcolm became more prominent as a civic leader, the couple spent much time apart. In 1963, after he broke with the Nation of Islam and their separatist policies to pursue his ideas of global unity, they were subjected to much hostility, including harassing telephone calls. Two years later, Malcolm was murdered at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. For three weeks after his death, Shabazz was unable to sleep. She was then invited to make a Hajj, or spiritual journey, to Mecca in her husband's place, and she credited that pilgrimage with helping her to sort things out. She returned home to Mount Vernon, New York, to raise her daughters alone, learning to remain calm and cheerful for their sake.

Shabazz reared the children according to Malcolm's principles, believing that it was the parents' duty to teach children about their heritage and cultural traditions. The girls received a well-rounded education, learning Arabic, French, and ballet. She also thought it important that her daughters broaden their scope and took them on trips to Africa, the Middle East, and the West Indies. Remarkably, she also found time to continue her own education, receiving a master's degree in public health administration from Jersey City State College and going on to earn a Ph.D. in education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

In 1976, Shabazz became associate professor of health education at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. She soon became director of the department of communications and public relations and head of the school's office of institutional advancement. By then a national figure as an educator and civil-rights activist and deeply revered in the black community, Shabazz made speaking appearances throughout the United States. She always tried to spread Malcolm's message of unity and advancement of blacks, and was a champion of black women in their struggle against oppression.

For many years, Shabazz believed that Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan was responsible for the assassination of her husband, in retaliation for Malcolm's split from the Nation of Islam. In turn, her adult daughter Qubilah Shabazz was accused of plotting Farrakhan's death in what many believed was a set-up by a government informer (she did not go to trial). Betty Shabazz eventually reconciled with Farrakhan, in part due to his support of Qubilah during that time, and even spoke at his Million Man March. In 1997, Qubilah's 12-year-old son Malcolm, whom Shabazz had been caring for, set fire to her apartment in Yonkers, New York, perhaps in a bid to get himself sent home to his mother in Texas. During the blaze, Shabazz suffered third-degree burns over 80% of her body. Shortly afterwards, she died in a New York City hospital. While her daughters and friends including Maya Angelou , Evers-Williams, and Coretta Scott King mourned her untimely death and celebrated her life, New York congressional representative Charles Rangel said: "Her husband was harassed and hounded and finally assassinated in front of her and her children. She could have gone into permanent mourning and the world would have understood. But she returned to school, received her Ph.D., educated her children and picked up her husband's mantle."


Contemporary Black Biography. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.

People Weekly. December 30, 1997, p. 183.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women, Book II. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1998.

Time. June 16, 1997, pp. 48–49.

suggested reading:

Brown, Jamie Foster, ed. Betty Shabazz: A Sisterfriends' Tribute in Words and Pictures. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Ruth Savitz , freelance writer, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania