Betty Shabazz (pictured), the widow of famed civil rights icon Malcolm X, died on this day in 1997 at the age of 61. Her death was the result of a blaze in her New York home three weeks prior that was started by her grandson.
Mrs. Shabazz was burned in a June 1 fire that was brought about by her grandson, Malcolm Shabazz, who was just 12 at the time. The family’s Mount Vernon home went up in flames, burning more than 80 percent of Shabazz’s body. Shabazz underwent major surgery yet remained in critical condition the entire time she was hospitalized.
Her grandson was arrested and accused of setting the fire because he was unhappy for being to sent to live there by his mother, Qubilah Shabazz, who was undergoing treatment via a plea deal after a failed plot to kill Nation Of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
Shabazz’s death rocked the nation, and several Black figures spoke upon her loss.
“Millions of people look to her for some kind of understanding of the history of the struggle,” said Black activist and poet Amiri Baraka as reported by CNN at the time of the passing. “She’s the wife of one of the greatest African-American leaders of history.”
Born Betty Dean Sanders on May 28, 1934, the Detroit native had dreams of becoming a teacher as a young woman after leaving Tuskegee University before landing at Brooklyn State College School of Nursing in New York. It was in the city she met her future husband and converted to Islam in 1956. The pair married two years later, after a traditional Islamic courtship.
After the family converted to an orthodox form of Islam, they broke away from the NOI and changed their family name to Shabazz. Tensions between the NOI and the former national spokesman came to a head when he was assassinated on February 21, 1965. Pregnant with the couple’s twin daughters at the time, Shabazz was without financial support.
However, author Alex Haley came to her aid by donating half the profits of his book, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” to the family. The late Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier‘s wife at the time, Juanita, also helped to raise funds that aided in Shabazz obtaining the home in Mount Vernon.
Keeping faithful to her duties as a Muslim, she made the required “hajj” or pilgrimage to the Holy City of Mecca and searched for the means to support her six daughters. She entered New Jersey City University in 1969, graduating with an education degree in one year. She then earned a Master’s at the same institution shortly after. In 1972, she entered the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to earn a doctorate in higher education.
After commuting for three years between her home and the university, she earned her doctorate in 1975. Later she became an associate professor of Health Sciences at Medger Evers College. In 1980, she became the Director of Institutional Advancement.
Shabazz’s grandson was murdered under curious circumstances in May of 2013.