After the shocking assassination of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965, his widow, Betty Shabazz, received a telegram from someone long thought to be one of her husband’s rivals — Martin Luther King Jr. While both were outspoken civil rights leaders of their time, their means to achieve the goals didn’t exactly line up — and King addressed that in his message of sympathy.
“I was certainly saddened by the shocking and tragic assassination of your husband,” King said in the Western Union telegram, stamped February 26, 1965. “While we did not see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem.”
After offering his condolences, he also reached out with an olive branch of sorts: “Always consider me a friend and if I can do anything to ease the heavy load you are forced to carry at this time, please feel free to call on me.”
Of course, as fate would have it, King himself met the same cruel fate a few years later, when he was tragically assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, also leaving behind his widow, Coretta Scott King.
Meeting Malcolm X was a 'turning point' for Shabazz
While their husbands made headlines for their actions, both women were also staunch leaders in their own ways as well.
Growing up in Detroit, Shabazz was somewhat sheltered from the issues, as she wrote in a 1995 Ebony story: “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.’”
But when she met Malcolm, that shifted her world view. “The turning point in my life and racial consciousness was meeting Malcolm,” she continued, saying that he was responsible for her “subsequent involvement in the movement for social, political and religious change over the past 30 years.”
After her husband’s death, she finished her undergraduate degree at Jersey City State College and doctorate in higher education administration at the University of Massachusetts, giving public lectures along the way, advocating for education and human rights. She eventually worked as an associate professor of health sciences at New York’s Medgar Evers College, continuing to speak out through her roles as an administrator and fundraiser.
King fought beside her husband
Whether it was the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, the Ghana independence trip in 1957, the India pilgrimage in 1959 or the work behind the 1964 Civil Rights Act, King was right beside her husband through his greatest civil rights acts, while also carving out her own place as a public mediator and liaison to peace and justice organizations.
So when her husband was devastatingly shot, she wasted no time in picking up his work exactly where he left off — leading his planned march in Memphis to support the sanitation workers just four days after his death. In 1968, she established The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, also known as The King Center, to continue his mission, as she declared the organization to be “no dead monument, but a living memorial filled with all the vitality that was his, a center of human endeavor, committed to the causes for which he lived and died.”
The widows shared a sisterhood
The two women no doubt had a lot in common, not just as wives to tragically slain civil rights leaders, but activists with passion in their own rights — who were left behind to raise their children with the same values, as Shabazz had six kids and King had four.
The Washington Post says they were often cast in the press as “the widows” — along with Myrlie Evers-Williams, who was married to NAACP’s first field secretary Medgar Evans, tragically assassinated in 1963, muffling the impact of their own achievements. But the three did indeed share a kindred spirit because of the similarly sudden and devastating loss of their husbands.
Their daughters, Ilyasah Shabazz and Bernice King, joined together in a powerful Facebook conversation to discuss their family’s joint legacies for the first time with GirlTrek in May 2020.
Looking at a photo of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. together smiling, the younger Shabazz called it a “blessing in time that they had the opportunity to meet one another.” While King’s daughter said it was a “powerful moment of intersection in a movement,” adding that the “amazing thing about that photo is that they’re both smiling and they were carrying an enormous burden.”
When they moved on to reflecting on a photo of their mothers together, the mood changed to the more personal.
“I’m so grateful, Bernice, that that they had a sisterhood,” the Shabazz daughter said. “They could lean on one another. They knew they could trust one another 100 percent. They both endured and experienced the same kinds of challenges and traumas. But in spite of that, they rose up.”
The younger King echoed the sentiment: “They had each other. They could probably look at each other without saying a word and know what the other was saying or feeling because of the similar struggles and the similar issues.”
The death of Shabazz rocked King
While much of their bond seemed to happen behind closed doors, the strength of their connection truly showed when Shabazz was killed in a fire in 1997.
“When your mother passed, it really affected my mother,” King’s daughter told Shabazz’s daughter. “My mother… had moments of loneliness and obviously probably felt alone at times. I could feel some of that pain in my mother’s life even though I never talked about it with her. I just kind of carried it. I always wanted my mother to have a place where she could let down and be herself and not have to be 'Coretta Scott King.' The friendship she had with your mother was that, it was a refuge. It was that sisterhood. It was where she didn’t have to put on any public face.”
In fact, when the two women got together, it was like any other friendship. “They would just giggle — they loved to giggle,” Bernice said. “She became a best friend to my mom.” More than that, they were like family, as King would sign items to Shabazz’s family “Love, Aunt Coretta.”
The pain of the family loss was shown at Shabazz’s funeral, as Evers-Williams leaned into King, calling Shabazz the “third member of their sisterhood of sorrow,” as The New York Times described, adding that “all of them [had] lost husbands whose blunt attacks on racial injustice courted grave personal danger.”
''We married their mission, and that became our mission when they were no longer there,” King said during the service.