Betty Shabazz is best known as the wife of African-American nationalist leader Malcolm X, who was assassinated in New York City in 1965.
Betty Dean Sanders was born on May 28, 1934, to the teenaged Ollie Mae Sanders and Shelman Sandlin. While Betty spent most of her childhood in Detroit, she may have been born in Pinehurst, Georgia. At the age of 11, Betty began living with businessman Lorenzo Malloy and his wife, Helen. Helen Malloy was a local activist who organized boycotts of stores discriminating against African Americans.
After high school, Sanders studied at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The extreme racism she encountered in the Jim Crow South shocked and frustrated her. In 1953, 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. While less overt, the racism that she observed in New York deeply affected Betty.
Nation of Islam
During her second year of nursing school, Sanders was invited by an older nurse’s aide to a dinner party at the National of Islam temple in Harlem. She enjoyed the evening but declined to join the organization at that time. During her next visit to the temple, Sanders met Malcolm X, who was her friend’s minister. Sanders began attending Malcolm X’s services. She converted in 1956, changing her surname to “X” to represent the loss of her African ancestry.
Betty X and Malcolm X were married on January 14, 1958, in Michigan. The couple eventually had six daughters. In 1964, Malcolm X announced that his family was leaving the Nation of Islam. He and Betty X, now known as Betty Shabazz, became Sunni Muslims.
Assassination of Malcolm X
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated while giving a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. Shabazz was in the audience near the stage with her daughters.
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.
Shabazz never remarried. She raised her six daughters alone, aided by annual royalties from her husband’s book The Autobiography of Malcolm X and other publications.
In late 1969, Shabazz completed an undergraduate degree at Jersey City State College, followed by a doctoral degree in higher-education administration at the University of Massachusetts. She then accepted a position as an associate professor of health sciences at New York’s Medgar Evers College. She worked as a university administrator and fund-raiser until her death.
For many years, Shabazz and her family suspected the Nation of Islam and its leader, Louis Farrakhan, of arranging the assassination of her husband. In 1995, Shabazz’s daughter Qubilah was prosecuted for hiring an assassin to kill Farrakhan. Farrakhan reached out to the family to defend Qubilah, prompting a public reconciliation between Shabazz and Farrakhan.
While Qubilah attended a rehabilitation program, she sent her 10-year-old son, Malcolm, to stay with her mother in New York. On June 1, 1997, 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.
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. Betty Shabazz is buried beside her husband at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
May 28, 1934
June 23, 1997
- Betty Shabazz decided to relocate to New York City because she was not happy living in Alabama due to the racism. She decided to become a nurse.
- Betty and Malcolm X met each other in New York. She decided to become a member of Nation of Islam in 1956. In 1958, both married. In 1964, both left the Nation of Islam. In the following year, his husband was killed.
- When Malcolm X passed away, the life was very difficult for Betty. She had to raise her six daughters alone. Therefore, she decided to continue her education. Then she found a job in Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York.
- After the death of her husband, Betty had difficulty to sleep. She had nightmares for weeks. She did not know how to support the family. But she could earn half of the royalty of Autobiography of Malcolm X. The other half of the royalties was for Alex Hailey who helped Malcolm writing the book. Hailey gave the other half of his royalty of this publication to Betty after he made a best seller with Roots.