Shabazz grew up in Detroit, Michigan, where her foster parents largely sheltered her from racism. She attended the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where she had her first encounters with racism. Unhappy with the situation in Alabama, she moved to New York City, where she became a nurse. It was in New York that she met Malcolm X and, in 1956, joined the Nation of Islam.
Along with her husband, Shabazz left the Nation of Islam in 1964. She witnessed his assassination the following year. Left with the responsibility of raising six daughters as a single mother, Shabazz pursued a higher education, and went to work at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York.
Following the arrest of her daughter Qubilah for allegedly conspiring to murder Louis Farrakhan, Shabazz took in her young grandson Malcolm. He set a fire in her apartment that caused severe burns to Shabazz. Shabazz died three weeks later as a result of her injuries.
Betty Dean Sanders was born on May 28, 1934, to Ollie Mae Sanders and Shelman Sandlin. Sandlin was 21 years old and Ollie Mae Sanders was a teenager; the couple were unmarried. Throughout her life, Betty Sanders maintained that she had been born in Detroit, Michigan, but early records—such as her high-school and college transcripts—show Pinehurst, Georgia, as her place of birth. Authorities in Georgia and Michigan have not been able to locate her birth certificate.
By most accounts, Ollie Mae Sanders abused Betty Sanders, whom she was raising in Detroit. When Betty was about 11 years old, she was taken in by Lorenzo and Helen Malloy, a prominent businessman and his wife. Helen Malloy was a founding member of the Housewives League of Detroit, a group of African-American women who organized campaigns to support black-owned businesses and boycott stores that refused to hire black employees. She was also a member of the National Council of Negro Women and the NAACP.
Despite their lessons on black self-reliance, the Malloys never spoke with Sanders about racism. Looking back in 1995, Shabazz wrote: “Race relations were not discussed and it was hoped that by denying the existence of race problems, the problems would go away. Anyone who openly discussed race relations was quickly viewed as a ‘troublemaker.'” Still, two race riots during her childhood—in 1942 when the Sojourner Truth housing project was desegregated, and one the following year on Belle Isle—made up what Shabazz later called the “psychological background for my formative years”.
Young adult years
After she graduated from high school, Sanders left her foster parents’ home in Detroit to study at the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), a historically black college in Alabama that was Lorenzo Malloy’s alma mater. She intended to earn a degree in education and become a teacher.
Nothing had prepared Sanders for Southern racism. So long as she stayed on campus, she could avoid interacting with white people, but weekend trips into Montgomery, the nearest city, would try her patience. Black students had to wait until every white person in a store had been helped before the staff would serve them—if they received any service at all. When she complained to the Malloys, they refused to discuss the issue; in a 1989 interview, Shabazz summarized their attitude as “if you’re just quiet it will go away.”
Sanders’ studies suffered as a result of her growing frustration. She decided to change her field of study from education to nursing. The dean of nursing, Lillian Harvey, encouraged Sanders to consider studying in a Tuskegee-affiliated program at the Brooklyn State College School of Nursing in New York City. Against her foster parents’ wishes, Sanders left Alabama for New York in 1953.
In New York, Sanders encountered a different form of racism. At Montefiore Hospital, where she performed her clinical training, black nurses were given worse assignments than white nurses. White patients sometimes were abusive toward black nurses. While the racial climate in New York was better than the situation in Alabama, Sanders frequently wondered whether she had merely exchanged Jim Crow racism for a more genteel prejudice.
Nation of Islam
During her second year of nursing school, Sanders was invited by an older nurse’s aide to a Friday-night dinner party at the Nation of Islam temple in Harlem. “The food was delicious,” Shabazz recalled in 1992, “I’d never tasted food like that.” After dinner, the woman asked Sanders to come to the Muslims’ lecture. Sanders agreed. After the speech, the nurse’s aide invited Sanders to join the Nation of Islam; Sanders politely declined. The older woman told Sanders about her minister, who was not at the temple that night: “Just wait until you hear my minister talk. He’s very disciplined, he’s good-looking, and all the sisters want him.”
Sanders enjoyed the food so much, she agreed to come back and meet the woman’s minister. At the second dinner, the nurse’s aide told her the minister was present and Sanders thought to herself, “Big deal.” In 1992 she recalled how her demeanor changed when she caught a glimpse of Malcolm X:
Then, I looked over and saw this man on the extreme right aisle sort of galloping to the podium. He was tall, he was thin, and the way he was galloping it looked as though he was going someplace much more important than the podium. … He got to the podium—and I sat up straight. I was impressed with him.
Sanders met Malcolm X again at a dinner party. The two had a long conversation about Sanders’s life: her childhood in Detroit, the racial hostility she had encountered in Alabama, and her studies in New York. He spoke to her about the condition of African Americans and the causes of racism. Sanders began to see things from a different perspective. “I really had a lot of pent-up anxiety about my experience in the South,” Shabazz recalled in a 1990 interview, “and Malcolm reassured me that it was understandable how I felt.”
Soon Sanders was attending all of Malcolm X’s lectures at Temple Number Seven in Harlem. He always sought her out afterwards, and he would ask her a lot of questions. He also began to pressure her to join the Nation of Islam. In mid 1956, Sanders converted. Like many members of the Nation of Islam, she changed her surname to “X”, which represented the family name of her African ancestors that she could never know.
Marriage and family
Betty X and Malcolm X did not have a conventional courtship. One-on-one dates were contrary to the teachings of the Nation of Islam. Instead, the couple shared their “dates” with dozens, or even hundreds of other members. Malcolm X frequently took groups to visit New York’s museums and libraries, and he always invited Betty X.
Although they had never discussed the subject, Betty X suspected that Malcolm X was interested in marriage. One day he called and asked her to marry him, and they were married on January 14, 1958, in Lansing, Michigan. By coincidence, Betty X became a licensed nurse on the same day.
At first, their relationship followed the Nation of Islam’s strictures concerning marriage; Malcolm X set the rules and Betty X obediently followed them. In 1969, Shabazz wrote that “his indoctrination was so thorough, even to me, that it has become a pattern for our [family’s] lives.” Over time, the family dynamic changed, as Malcolm X made small concessions to Betty X’s demands for more independence. In 1969, Shabazz recalled:
We would have little family talks. They began at first with Malcolm telling me what he expected of a wife. But the first time I told him what I expected of him as a husband it came as a shock. After dinner one night he said, “Boy, Betty, something you said hit me like a ton of bricks. Here I’ve been going along having our little workshops with me doing all the talking and you doing all the listening.” He concluded our marriage should be a mutual exchange.
The couple had six daughters. Their names were Attallah, born in 1958 and named after Attila the Hun; Qubilah, born in 1960 and named after Kublai Khan; Ilyasah, born in 1962 and named after Elijah Muhammad; Gamilah Lumumba, born in 1964 and named after Patrice Lumumba; and twins, Malikah and Malaak, born in 1965 after their father’s assassination and named for him.
Leaving the Nation of Islam
Assassination of Malcolm X
On February 21, 1965, in Manhattan‘s Audubon Ballroom, Malcolm X began to speak to a meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, when a disturbance broke out in the crowd of 400. As Malcolm X and his bodyguards moved to quiet the disturbance, a man rushed forward and shot Malcolm in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun. Two other men charged the stage and fired handguns, hitting him 16 times.
Shabazz was in the audience near the stage with her daughters. When she heard the gunfire, she grabbed the children and pushed them to the floor beneath the bench, where she shielded them with her body. When the shooting stopped, Shabazz ran toward her husband and tried to perform CPR. Police officers, and Malcolm X’s associates, carried him to a stretcher, and brought him to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Angry onlookers caught and beat one of the assassins, who was arrested on the scene. Eyewitnesses identified two more suspects. All three men, who were members of the Nation of Islam, were convicted, and sentenced to life in prison.
After the assassination
Shabazz had difficulty sleeping for weeks after Malcolm X’s assassination. She suffered from nightmares in which she relived the death of her husband. She also worried about how she would support herself and her family. The publication of The Autobiography of Malcolm X helped, because Shabazz received half of the royalties. (Alex Haley, who assisted Malcolm X in writing the book, got the other half. After the publication of his best-seller Roots, Haley signed over his portion of the royalties to Shabazz.)
Actor and activist Ruby Dee, and Juanita Poitier (wife of Sidney Poitier), established the Committee of Concerned Mothers, to raise funds to buy a house, and pay educational expenses for the Shabazz family. The Committee held a series of benefit concerts at which they raised $17,000. They bought a large two-family home in Mount Vernon, New York, from Congressmember Bella Abzug.
Pilgrimage to Mecca
I really don’t know where I’d be today if I had not gone to Mecca to make Hajj shortly after Malcolm was assassinated. … That is what helped put me back on track. … Going to Mecca, making Hajj, was very good for me because it made me think of all the people in the world who loved me and were for me, who prayed that I would get my life back together. I stopped focusing on the people who were trying to tear me and my family apart.
Shabazz returned from Mecca with a new name that a fellow pilgrim had bestowed upon her, Bahiyah (meaning “beautiful and radiant”).
Raising her family
Raising six daughters by herself exhausted Shabazz. Providing for them was difficult as well. Shabazz’s share of the royalties from The Autobiography of Malcolm X was equivalent to an annual salary. In 1966, she sold the movie rights to the Autobiography to film-maker Marvin Worth. She began to authorize the publication of Malcolm X’s speeches, which provided another source of income.
When her daughters were enrolled in day care, Shabazz became an active member of the day care center’s parents organization. In time, she became the parents’ representative on the school board. Several years later, she became president of the Westchester Day Care Council.
Shabazz began to accept speaking engagements at colleges and universities. She often spoke about the black nationalist philosophy of Malcolm X, but she also spoke about her role as a wife and mother.
In late 1969, Shabazz enrolled at Jersey City State College (now New Jersey City University) to complete the degree in education she left behind when she became a nurse. She completed her undergraduate studies in one year, and decided to earn a master’s degree in health administration. In 1972, Shabazz enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to pursue an Ed.D. in higher education administration and curriculum development. For the next three years, she drove from Mount Vernon to Amherst, Massachusetts, every Monday morning, and returned home Wednesday night. In July 1975, she defended her thesis and earned her doctorate.
Medgar Evers College
In January 1976, Shabazz became associate professor of health sciences with a concentration in nursing at New York’s Medgar Evers College. The student body at Medgar Evers was 90 percent black, predominantly working-class, and—with an average age of 26—adult. Black women made up most of the faculty, and 75 percent of the students were female, two-thirds of them mothers. These were all qualities that made Medgar Evers College attractive to Shabazz.
By 1980, Shabazz was overseeing the health sciences department, and the college president decided she could be more effective in a purely administrative position than she was in the classroom. She was promoted to Director of Institutional Advancement. In her new position, she became a booster and fund-raiser for the college. A year later, she was given tenure. In 1984, Shabazz was given a new title, Director of Institutional Advancement and Public Affairs; she held that position at the college until her death.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Shabazz continued her volunteer activities. In 1975, President Ford invited her to serve on the American Revolution Bicentennial Council. Shabazz served on an advisory committee on family planning for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In 1984, she hosted the New York convention of the National Council of Negro Women. Shabazz became active in the NAACP and the National Urban League. When Nelson and Winnie Mandela visited Harlem during 1990, Shabazz was asked to introduce Winnie Mandela.
Shabazz befriended Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers, and Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr. They had the common experience of losing their activist husbands at a young age and raising their children as single mothers. The press came to refer to the three, who made numerous joint public appearances, as the “Movement widows”. Evers-Williams and King were frequent guests at Medgar Evers College, and Shabazz occasionally visited the King Center in Atlanta.
For many years, Shabazz harbored resentment toward the Nation of Islam—and Louis Farrakhan in particular—for what she felt was their role in the assassination of her husband. Farrakhan seemed to boast of the assassination in a 1993 speech:
Was Malcolm your traitor or ours? And if we dealt with him like a nation deals with a traitor, what the hell business is it of yours? A nation has to be able to deal with traitors and cutthroats and turncoats.
In a 1994 interview, Gabe Pressman asked Shabazz whether Farrakhan “had anything to do” with Malcolm X’s death. She replied: “Of course, yes. Nobody kept it a secret. It was a badge of honor. Everybody talked about it, yes.” Farrakhan denied the allegations, stating “I never had anything to do with Malcolm’s death”, although he said he had “created an atmosphere that allowed Malcolm to be assassinated.”
In January 1995, Qubilah Shabazz was charged with trying to hire an assassin to kill Farrakhan in retaliation for the murder of her father. Farrakhan surprised the Shabazz family when he defended Qubilah, saying he did not think she was guilty and that he hoped she would not be convicted. That May, Betty Shabazz and Farrakhan shook hands on the stage of the Apollo Theater during a public event intended to raise money for Qubilah’s legal defense. Some heralded the evening as a reconciliation between the two, but others thought Shabazz was doing whatever she had to in order to protect her daughter. Regardless, nearly $250,000 was raised that evening. In the aftermath, Shabazz maintained a cool relationship with Farrakhan, although she agreed to speak at his Million Man March that October.
Qubilah accepted a plea agreement with respect to the charges, in which she maintained her innocence but accepted responsibility for her actions. Under the terms of the agreement, she was required to undergo psychological counseling and treatment for drug and alcohol abuse for a two-year period in order to avoid a prison sentence. For the duration of her treatment, Qubilah’s ten-year-old son, Malcolm, was sent to live with Shabazz at her apartment in Yonkers, New York.
On June 1, 1997, young Malcolm set a fire in Shabazz’s apartment. Shabazz suffered burns over 80 percent of her body, and remained in intensive care for three weeks, at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, New York. She underwent five skin-replacement operations as doctors struggled to replace damaged skin and save her life. Shabazz died of her injuries on June 23, 1997. Malcolm Shabazz was sentenced to 18 months in juvenile detention for manslaughter and arson.
More than 2,000 mourners attended a memorial service for Shabazz, at New York’s Riverside Church. Many prominent leaders were present, including Coretta Scott King and Myrlie Evers-Williams, poet Maya Angelou, actor-activists Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, New York Governor George Pataki, and four New York City mayors—Abraham Beame, Ed Koch, David Dinkins, and Rudy Giuliani. U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman delivered a tribute from President Bill Clinton. In a statement released after Shabazz’s death, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said, “She never stopped giving and she never became cynical. She leaves today the legacy of one who epitomized hope and healing.”
Shabazz’s funeral service was held at the Islamic Cultural Center in New York City. Her public viewing was at the Unity Funeral Home in Harlem; the same place where Malcolm X’s viewing had taken place 32 years earlier. Shabazz was buried next to her husband, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X), at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
In late 1997, the Community Healthcare Network renamed one of its Brooklyn, New York, clinics the Dr. Betty Shabazz Health Center, in honor of Shabazz. The Betty Shabazz International Charter School was founded in Chicago, Illinois, in 1998 and named in her honor. In 2005, Columbia University announced the opening of the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center. The memorial is located in the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was assassinated. In April 2011, the local Community Board recommended co-naming West 165th Street, the street in front of the Audubon Ballroom, Betty Shabazz Place