Although she was famously regarded as the widow of slain civil rights leader Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), Dr. Betty Shabazz blazed trails of her own. As an activist and educator, the late-Dr. Shabazz juggled the weighty responsibility of raising six children alone while advancing her education. Her selfless devotion to family and determination to succeed mark her as a beacon of inspiration to young women aspiring for more. NewsOne honors Dr. Shabazz on May 28 as we celebrate her life on what would have been her 83rd birthday.
Although there remain some conflicts on where she was born, Shabazz has long maintained Detroit, Mich., as her place of birth. Born Betty Dean Sanders on this day in 1934 to young parents, Ollie Mae Sanders and Shelman Sandlin, Shabazz was reportedly abused by her mother. At age 11, she was taken in by Lorenzo and Helen Malloy, an influential African-American couple. Although the Malloys were active in their community, they largely kept talks of racism away from their young charge.
After graduating high school, Shabazz left Detroit and attended the Tuskegee Institute (now University) in Alabama in hopes of becoming a teacher. In the Deep South, Shabazz encountered racist attitudes and the environment caused her studies to suffer. Switching her major from education to nursing, it was encouraged by school staff that she head to the Brooklyn State College School of Nursing in New York. While in the big city, Shabazz found she still dealt with racism despite having richer opportunities.
Shabazz came to learn about the Nation of Islam (NOI) after an invitation to a dinner at a Harlem temple. After a second visit, she would later hear and meet her future husband, Malcolm X, and was taken by his presence at the podium. Although she was not yet a member of the NOI, she would attend many lectures and the pair always spoke afterward. After much prodding by the minister, Shabazz would convert to Islam in 1956.
Their courtship began shortly thereafter, following the strict Islamic rule of no one-on-one dating. Malcolm X and Betty X (as she was known then) were often flanked by dozens of other individuals who served as chaperones. Although they had never discussed plans to marry, Malcolm X would eventually place a phone call and ask for a union. They were married January, 14, 1958, in Lansing, Mich.
They began to grown their family, and daughters Attallah, Quibilah, Ilyasah, and Gamilah were born. During this time, Malcolm X had grown dissatisfied with the NOI and started to embrace the orthodox teachings of Sunni Muslims. In 1964, he and his family left the NOI and joined the Sunnis.
The shift in philosophy also led to a name change, as they would leave behind the customary “X” names used by NOI members, choosing the family name Shabazz. This also led to tension in the personal lives of the Shabazz family, as the NOI considered the former minister a traitor. On February 21, 1965, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was assassinated in Manhattan.
Watch Dr. Shabazz discuss her husband’s legacy and death her:
As a widow giving birth to two girls Malikah and Malaak after the death of her husband, Shabazz found herself in dire straits. However, Alex Haley’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” had robust sales and he gave his half of the royalties to the Shabazz family. Actress Ruby Dee and Juanita Poitier (then-wife of Sidney Poitier) joined together in raising funds to buy the Shabazz family a home in Mount Vernon, N.Y.
After making a pilgrimage to Mecca and scrambling for means of income while raising six daughters, Shabazz enrolled in Jersey City Stage College (now New Jersey City University) in 1969. After earning her education degree in one year, she decided to enter a Master’s degree program. In 1972, she entered the University of Massachusetts Amherst to obtain a doctorate in higher education administration and curriculum development.
For three years, she commuted between Mount Vernon and the university, later defending and earning her doctorate in 1975. The following year, she would become the associate professor of Health Sciences with a concentration in nursing at Medgar Evers College. In 1980, she led the health sciences department but was given a promotion by the school’s president and named the Director of Institutional Advancement. Excelling in her role, she was again promoted to the title of Director of Institutional Advancement and Public Affairs in 1984.
Shabazz had long suspected NOI leader Louis Farrakhan as the person responsible for the slaying of her husband. Although the pair seemingly patched things up during a series of meetings, including a fund-raising event for her daughter Quibilah who was arrested for attempting to hire an assassin to kill the leader in 1995, Shabazz maintained a respectable distance. With Quibilah’s legal troubles, her son, Malcolm Shabazz, was sent to live with his grandmother.
On June 1, 1997, Shabazz would perish in a blaze reportedly set by her then-12-year-old grandson who later served 18 months of detention for manslaughter and arson. In a tragic set of events, Malcolm Shabazz was murdered in Mexico earlier this month. After a funeral attended by more than 2,000 people, Dr. Shabazz was buried next to her husband in Hartsdale, N.Y.
Although faced with odds that would break even the strongest person, Dr. Shabazz found a way to strive ahead and achieve great heights. While her family’s infamous struggles serve as fodder for discussion, it should be noted that Dr. Shabazz shined where many others have faltered. This marks her not only worthy of praise but also serves as a hopeful reminder that even tragedy cannot trump true determination.
Happy Birthday And Rest In Powerful Peace, Dr. Betty Shabazz!