Tribute to a Legend: Happy Birthday to the late Dr. Betty Shabazz!
UPDATED 2:45 PM ET, May 28, 2022
Originally Posted – May 28, 2013
VSassuming responsibility for motherhood and widowhood, Dr. Betty Shabazz channeled his struggle and frustration into motivation and passion. While some see her as the widow of Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), Shabazz its own marked paths.
Juggling her life as a single mother of six and her commitment to education, Shabazz remains a powerful role model for anyone struggling to overcome tragedy. NewsOne honors Dr. Shabazz on May 28 and celebrates his life on what would have been his 88th birthday.
While some records suggest that Shabazz was born in Pinehurst, Georgia, she claimed Detroit as her home. According to her biography, recorded by the National Park Service, Shabazz was born Betty Dean Sanders in 1934 to young parents Ollie Mae Sander and Shellman Sandlin. Allegedly abused by her mother, Shabazz was then raised in Detroit by Lorenzo and Helen Malloy from the age of 11.
An influential African-American couple, the Malloys were active in their community. But they have largely kept discussions of racism away from their young charge. According his daughter IlyasahShabazz grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and participated in Delta Sigma Theta Sprites in high school.
Pursuing her dream of becoming a teacher, Shabazz left Detroit and attended the Tuskegee Institute (now University) in Alabama. There she encountered racism which interfered with her studies. She changed her major to nursing and was encouraged by school staff to go to Brooklyn State College School of Nursing in New York. In New York, she experienced another form of racism.
She was soon introduced to the Nation of Islam after an invitation to dinner at a temple in Harlem. After a second visit, she will later hear and meet her future husband, Malcolm X. Yourken by his presence on the podium, Shabazz will attend several of his conferences. It is said that she and Malcolm talked often afterwards. After many encouragements from the minister, Shabazz converted to Islam in 1956.
Their courtship began soon after, often flanked by dozens of other people who served as chaperones, as was the custom. Although they never discussed wedding plans, Malcolm X would eventually make a phone call and ask for a union. They were married on January 14, 1958 in Lansing, Michigan.
Over the next seven years, the couple saw their family grow with the birth of four daughters Attallah, Quibila, Ilyasahand Gamillah. When her husband was murdered, Shabazz was pregnant with twins, malikah and Malak.
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After her husband’s death, Shabazz found herself in dire straits. However, by Alex Haley “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” had strong sales and he donated his share of the royalties to the Shabazz family. Actress Ruby Dee and Juanita Poitier (then wife of Sidney Poitier) came together to raise money to buy the Shabazz family a house in Mount Vernon, NY
After making a pilgrimage to Mecca and seeking ways to earn a living while raising six daughters, Shabazz enrolled in Jersey City Stage College (now New Jersey City University) in 1969. She graduated in education in one year and then entered a master’s program. . In 1972, she attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to earn a doctorate in higher education administration and program development.
While continuing her education, Shabazz made sure her daughters had as many opportunities as possible. On her website, Ilyasah shared that she and her sisters participated in summer camps with Quaker and Native American values, music lessons, and tutorials on Islam and the African Diaspora.
But Shabazz didn’t fade into the background after Malcolm’s passing. It has remained linked to the political organization in its own way. An iconic photo captured by Shabazz alongside the Democratic representative for president. Shirley ChisholmDorothy Height, President of the National Council of Negro Women, and Marion Anderson.
She shuttled between Mount Vernon and the university for three years, defending and later earning her doctorate in 1975. The following year, she would become an associate professor of health sciences with a concentration in nursing at Medgar Evers College . In 1980, she headed the health sciences department but was promoted by the school’s president and named director of institutional advancement. Excelling in her role, she was again promoted to Director of Advancement and Public Affairs in 1984.
Like her contemporaries, Coretta Scott King and Myrlie Evers, Shabazz was more than an extension of her late husband’s legacy. Author Rusell Rickford noted this in a 2004 book on her approach to capturing the essence of her life in the book “Betty Shabazz”.
“I discovered while researching Dr. Shabazz that it was a mistake to approach his life solely in terms of Malcolm,” Rickford explained. “Pretty early in the research, I realized it wasn’t going to work that it was a compelling and valuable story in its own right. That she was a fascinating figure in her own right. And that her story needed to be respected.
He found that his life after Malcolm from 1965 to his death in 1997 reflected “victories, defeats and crises in the black community” and with black leadership. A mistake made by some mainstream sites when chronicling her life and work is that she did not challenge white supremacy like Malcolm.
But his work to support black communities and raise awareness of the “black condition” has done just that. Shabazz had a clear understanding of the struggle that awaited black people to seek freedom.
“No one will give us freedom,” she said in an earlier speech. “If someone were to give us freedom, we would have had it a long time ago. No one gave freedom to anyone else.
She said it was essential to fight for the potential of freedom. Shabazz also recognized that people deserve to have their needs met, regardless of their vocation or position in life.
“Not everyone is going to be a doctor or a lawyer,” she said. “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that every human being has the right to education. Every human being has the right to a job that allows him and his family to survive. And everyone has the right to decent and decent housing. Why is the worst food, the worst neighborhoods, the worst schools [and] worst jobs are relegated to blacks? This is not fair treatment. Black people have the right to resist oppression.
She also said that white people who make up the power structure and black people who are conditioned to accept the status quo see black people who challenge the system as “troublemakers”. She said if the tables were turned, those who despise people who campaign for change would do the same to get what they deserved.
Next month will mark 25 years since her tragic death after being caught in a fire believed to have been started by her then 12-year-old grandson. After more than 2,000 people attended a funeral, Dr Shabazz was laid to rest next to her husband in Hartsdale, NY
Though faced with odds that would break even the strongest person, Shabazz found a way to push forward and reach great heights. She shone where many others have failed. An honored ancestor, the late Dr. Betty Shabazz serves as a hopeful reminder that even tragedy cannot outweigh true determination.
Happy Birthday and Rest in Powerful Peace, Dr. Betty Shabazz!
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