As the wife of highly praised civil and human rights leader El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X), the late Betty Shabazz stood tall herself as an educator and civil rights advocate, taking on the weighty task of raising her six daughters with dignity and grace. On what would have been her 78th birthday, NewsOne celebrates the life of Mrs. Shabazz.
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Shabazz was born Betty Dean Sanders in 1934 on this day in Detroit to young parents, moving at the age of 11 to live with Lorenzo and Helen Malloy, a prominent Black couple who gave the youngster a good life and largely kept her from experiencing the racism that existed beyond their confines. However, Shabazz would witness two race riots that opened her eyes to world far more turbulent than she had known.
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Because of her upbringing, Shabazz had never known what racism felt like. The Malloys employed the tactic many Blacks used in keeping silent about the issue. However, Shabazz went south to attend her adopted father’s alma mater, Tuskegee Institute, where she was experienced racism firsthand. Never able to adjust to the pressures of studying and fending off prejudiced Whites, Shabazz would switch her major from education to nursing. Her decision would lead her to head to New York City’s Brooklyn State College of Nursing.
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Shabazz may have escaped the southern brand of racism, but endured an entirely different sort of racial hatred while working in New York. White nurses routinely looked down on their Black counterparts, often taking better jobs and verbally berating them. While in nursing school, a chance invitation to a dinner party to a Nation of Islam dinner party in Harlem led to Shabazz eventually meeting her future husband. Then known as Malcolm X, the fiery minister impressed Shabazz and eventually they formed a relationship. After Malcolm X convinced Betty to convert, they underwent the traditional Islamic courtship to prepare for marriage.
The pair was wed in January of 1958. On the day of their wedding, Shabazz would also obtain her nursing degree. The couple would go on the have six children and enjoyed a balanced marriage where Shabazz was seen as an equal by her husband. After much debate and new eye-opening experiences, Malcolm X and his wife left the Nation of Islam in 1964 and became Sunni Muslims.
Tragedy struck in February 1965 after gunmen from the Nation of Islam assassinated Malcolm X in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom where he was giving a speech. Betty Shabazz witnessed the slaying of her husband alongside her children, and it had weighed on her heavily according to past interviews and reports. She would eventually make a pilgrimage to the Holy City of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, returning to America with renewed purpose.
Shabazz had a tough time raising her children on her own, but assistance in the form of royalties from the sales of her husband’s autobiography co-written by Alex Haley helped. Actress Ruby Dee and the then-wife of actor Sidney Poitier raised funds for Shabazz to assist her in purchasing a home in Mount Vernon. Driven by a will to be an educator, Shabazz would complete her undergraduate studies in one year, and then went on to earn a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She would then go on to teach at Medgar Evans College, eventually becoming a leading administrator and director for the college in 1984 until the time of her passing.
Shabazz would unfortunately die at the hands of her grandson, Malcolm, then just 10 years of age. He was sent to live with her while his mother, Qubliah, dealt with legal issues regarding Louis Farrakhan, who the family felt was responsible in the death of her husband. Malcolm set a fire in Shabazz’s home, where she suffered severe burns. After three weeks of treatment, she would eventually succumb to her injuries on June 23, 1997.
Shabazz would be honored in several ways after her untimely death, with the Community Healthcare Network renaming one of its nursing centers after her. In Chicago, a charter school bears her name and this year, New York officials renamed the corner of West 165th Street near the Audubon Ballroom Betty Shabazz Way.
Betty Shabazz’s devotion to her children and also her husband’s vision lands her atop a long list of Black women who have achieved much in the face of adversity. Her tenacity and will to continue on where others might have withered proves that she was worthy of the accolades that still accompany her name.
Rest In Power and Happy Birthday, Dr. Betty Shabazz.