Ever heard of the old saying, “Behind every great man, there’s a great woman”?
Such can be said about Dr. Betty Shabazz, the wife of slain human rights activist Malcolm X, who never failed to persevere in the midst of tragedy and constant adversity. Known as a mother, activist, educator and enduring survivor, Shabazz still stands as the ultimate symbol of strength, power and human resilience — even 18 years after her death.
Last week, the world commemorated Malcolm X on what would have been his 90th birthday. While the great El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz rightfully ranks among the greatest Americans of the 20th century, not enough is mentioned about his wife and closest companion, who became a quiet pillar of strength and comfort as her husband braved the trenches of racial oppression. Not enough credit is given to a woman who dared to carry on his unrivaled legacy, marching on as a catalyst for justice, equality and human dignity long after he sacrificed his life for the struggle.
In honor of her 81st birthday, here are nine interesting facts you should know about the life and legacy of the late Dr. Betty Shabazz.
Shabazz (born Betty Dean Sanders in Pinehurst, Georgia) spent much of her childhood in Detroit. After high school, she studied at Alabama’s Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute before eventually transferring to the Brooklyn State College School of Nursing in New York.
At the invitation of a friend, she attended a local meeting held by the Nation of Islam (NOI), where she met a young, charismatic minister named Malcolm X. Captivated by the powerful orator, she became even more intrigued by their personal conversations on race and society and began regularly attending his lectures. Also serving as an instructor at Mosque No. 7 for the Muslim Girls in Training (MGT), she officially converted to Islam in 1956, becoming a formal NOI member who went by the name Betty X.
After a traditional Muslim courtship (which prohibits one-on-one dating, thus requiring the pair to attend group dates at large social functions), Malcolm X placed a telephone call to request Betty X’s hand in marriage. On Jan. 14, 1958, less than one week after the proposal, they were officially wed in Lansing, Michigan.
She took on her most recognized surname “Shabazz” following Malcolm X’s split from the Nation of Islam.
After facts emerged regarding Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad’s illegitimate children and extramarital affairs within the organization, a disappointed Malcolm X — who viewed his once-mentor as a father-like figure — began to distance himself from the NOI. Consequently silenced by the group for 90 days following his infamous comments about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, he officially cut all NOI ties, eventually venturing on a religious pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964.
Now an Orthodox Sunni Muslim, Malcolm X’s spiritual journey inspired an ideological shift on race relations and social inequality, additionally influencing a newfound understanding for his white brethren, while sparking a keen interest in African and Third World anti-colonial struggles. He also adopted the new moniker El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, with his wife and their children simultaneously taking on the surname to replace the traditional X widely embraced by NOI members.
After Malcolm X distanced himself from Elijah Muhammad and the NOI, relations between the two entities became increasingly volatile, with many members viewing their former minister and national spokesman as a “traitor.” On Feb. 14, 1965, the Shabazz family home was firebombed and burned to the ground. There were no injuries, but Malcolm X immediately suspected that the NOI remained responsible for setting the fire.
One week later, as he delivered a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan, Malcolm X was gunned down by three NOI members in front of a pregnant Shabazz and their young daughters. The always protective mother used her body as a shield to defend her children from the barrage of gunfire.
Later that year, Shabazz gave birth to twin girls named Malaak and Malikah, born in November 1965.
At one point, Shabazz and Malcolm X lived near singer Nina Simone, who became one of many stars to come to the family’s aid after his death.
According to a new Netflix documentary chronicling the life of Nina Simone, the legendary songstress was once a short-term neighbor to Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz while residing in the suburb of Mount Vernon, New York. Simone (whose birthday falls on the same day as Malcolm X’s assassination), described her interaction with the couple in the 1992 autobiography I Put a Spell on You:
“I had never met Malcolm X face-to-face, although I did hear him speak in Harlem more than once, but I knew his wife, Betty Shabazz, because she was a neighbor of ours in Mount Vernon. She had been moving here and there with her children after Malcolm left Elijah Mohammed and the Nation of Islam because he felt he was moving in a different direction, politically and spiritually, from the Muslim movement that had spawned him. Then Malcolm was murdered and a group of people came together to raise the money for Betty to find a place, and I got involved in that.”
Homeless, penniless and pregnant with twins, 28-year-old Shabazz was now a grieving, single mother wondering how she would provide for a large family. Thankfully, several big-name figures rallied together to help her along the way.
Alex Haley, co-author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, gave Shabazz all royalties from his contribution to Malcolm X’s posthumous memoir. Actress Ruby Dee and Juanita Poitier (wife of actor Sidney Poitier) also established the Committee for Concerned Mothers to generate funds for a new family home in Mount Vernon (their previous residence had been completely destroyed by the firebombing).
In no time, donations were rolling in from various well-known figures, one of whom was Shirley Graham Du Bois — widow of W.E.B. Du Bois — who sent a generous contribution all the way from Ghana. Several benefit concerts followed, including a midnight show at the Apollo Theater headlined by the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., Dick Gregory, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and the great Nina Simone.
In the end, benefit concerts alone raised as much as $17,000 for the Shabazz family.
In March 1965, Shabazz made her own pilgrimage to Mecca.
Feelings of devastation, rage and despair consumed Betty Shabazz in the days following Malcolm X’s assassination.
Her belief that the NOI had issued a hit to murder her husband, paired with personal distress over America’s defaming portrayal of Malcolm as a preacher of hatred and violence, only added to the widow’s infinite grief. Feeling her spirituality dwindle under the weight of desolation, Shabazz embarked on a pilgrimage to Mecca in March 1965.
After making the Hajj, Shabazz felt renewed in her Muslim faith and realized that she could indeed survive in spite of her trying circumstances. She returned from the Holy Land claiming a new name assigned to her by another female pilgrim, announcing herself as Bahiyah (meaning “beautiful and radiant”).
In the face of adversity, Shabazz ultimately persevered as a mother, educator and foremost champion for civil and human rights.
Betty Shabazz remained the ultimate role model for her six daughters, who without the presence of their father still learned of his teachings and enduring humanity through lessons from their mother. She never faltered in her quest to keep her husband’s legacy alive.
Surviving off speaking engagements, consulting work and public appearances, Shabazz eventually earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in public health education from Jersey City State College, and later a Master of Arts in the same discipline. In 1975, she received her Ph.D. in education administration from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, subsequently accepting an assistant professor position in health sciences at Medgar Evers College. In time, Shabazz moved up the ranks to become the head of communications and public relations and was also appointed as the college’s cultural attaché.
Shabazz’s influential journey didn’t stop there. In the words of her daughter Ilyasah, Sister Betty stood as “an outspoken advocate for human rights, women’s rights, racial tolerance, and the goal of self-determination and self-reliance for the Diaspora.” During her lifetime, Shabazz was a participant in the Women’s International Conference in Beijing and was also selected to join United States delegations with Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Likewise as a nurse, she actively campaigned for the delivery of quality health care to underserved populations.
Intent on preserving the true essence of Malcolm X’s teachings and peerless legacy, Shabazz also remained steadfast in her efforts to keep his vision alive. She partnered with Pathfinder Press to publish volumes of his work that truthfully reflected his life and social ideologies, while also creating the Malcolm X Scholarship program at Columbia University, where students are required to provide medical services to underserved communities for at least one year. In addition, Shabazz successfully established the Malcolm X Memorial Center (MXM) at the Audubon to honor his memory and tirelessly rallied for the release of the Malcolm X Black Heritage Stamp in 1999.
In 1997, she was killed in a house fire set by her grandson Malcolm Shabazz.
Thirty-two years after the assassination of Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz suffered third-degree burns in an apartment fire set by her 12-year-old grandson Malcolm Latif Shabazz. On June 23, 1997, Shabazz succumbed to her injuries at New York’s Jacobi Medical Center.
After his mother Qubilah entered a court-ordered psychiatric/substance abuse facility for plotting to kill NOI Minister Louis Farrakhan — who she believed played a role in her father’s murder — Malcolm Shabazz was sent to live with his grandmother in Yonkers. Following the fatal fire, he was sentenced to 18 months in a juvenile detention center.
In 2013, Malcolm Shabazz, age 28, was beaten to death during a trip to Mexico City. He is currently interred near the graves of his grandparents Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, who remain buried side by side at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
Shabazz has been portrayed in numerous films, including a Lifetime original movie called Betty and Coretta.
In 2013, Angela Bassett and Mary J. Blige starred in the Lifetime original movie Betty and Coretta — a film chronicling the friendship between Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King (wife of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.), who along with Myrlie Evers-Williams (wife of civil rights activist Medgar Evers), came to be known as “The Three Widows of the Movement.”
The movie captures the struggles and triumphs of the two widowed, single mothers who forged an invaluable sisterhood based off a shared experience, while also proving themselves as ferocious warriors in the fight for civil rights long after the loss of their martyred husbands. Ironically, Bassett played Scott King in the Lifetime made-for-television production, but previously portrayed Shabazz in Spike Lee’s critically acclaimed biopic Malcolm X, and later in the 1995 flick Panther.
Also of note, Yolanda King — daughter of Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr. — depicted Shabazz in a 1981 television movie called Death of a Prophet.