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Betty Shabazz
Photo: Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Betty Shabazz

Biography
(1934–1997)
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Betty Shabazz is best known as the wife of African American nationalist leader Malcolm X, who was assassinated in New York City in 1965.

Who Was Betty Shabazz?

Betty Shabazz married Nation of Islam spokesman Malcolm X in 1958. After her husband’s assassination in 1965, Shabazz went on to a career in university administration and activism. She died from injuries sustained in a fire on June 23, 1997.

Early Life

Shabazz was born Betty Dean Sanders 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, Betty studied at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The extreme racism she encountered in the Jim Crow South shocked and frustrated her. In 1953, she left Alabama to study 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, Betty 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. Betty began attending Malcolm X’s services. She converted in 1956, changing her surname to “X” to represent the loss of her African ancestry.

Betty 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.

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The 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.

Later Life

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 fundraiser 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.

Death

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 severe burns and died on June 23, 1997. Malcolm Shabazz was sent to a juvenile detention for manslaughter and arson.

Shabazz is buried beside her husband at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

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