Betty Shabazz was the wife of Malcolm X, a prominent leader of the Nation of Islam. Her exact date of birth is not known, but it is believed to be May 28, 1934. She was born in Georgia to unwed teenage parents named Ollie Mae Sanders and Shelman Sandlin, and raised in Detroit. By some accounts, her father used to abuse her which led a local businessman named Lorenzo Malloy and his wife Helen to take her in with them. The Malloys were prominent members of the community and were active in the local church as well. Helen was one of the founding members of the “Housewives League of Detroit” which was a group of women who championed the cause of African American businessmen. Helen was also a member of the “National Council of Negro Women” and “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)”.
Growing up with the Malloys, Betty Shabazz had never directly encountered racism nor was this an open topic for discussion, which is why it came as a very rude shock to her when she left home for college. She enrolled at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to earn a degree in education. The college was predominantly black so she felt safe on campus, but out in the city there was rampant racism. Many stores would refuse to serve black customers or make them wait until every other white person had been served first. Betty changed her major from education to nursing, and against her parents’ wishes transferred to Brooklyn State College School of Nursing in New York City. In New York, she encountered a more frigid but still prevalent sort of racism. For instance, black nurses were given much worse assignments as compared to white ones.
At a colleagues invitation, Betty attended a dinner and lecture hosted by the Nation of Islam temple in Harlem where Malcolm X was speaking. She was impressed with their teachings but declined to join at that time. However, she kept returning to hear Malcolm X talk as she was impressed by his work ethic and philosophy. She discussed with Malcolm X the racial discrimination she had encountered at college, who commiserated and asked her in detail about her life and family. Betty eventually converted to the Nation of Islam and changed her surname to ‘X’ which represented a loss of identity. She married Malcolm X in January 1958 and the couple had 6 daughters together. They initially continued to preach and spread the message of Nation of Islam, but gradually became disillusioned and converted to mainstream Islam. Betty then changed her name to Betty Shabazz.
On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated while addressing a crowd of 400 people. He was shot 16 times and pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. It was very trying for Betty to support herself and her 6 daughters, but she received help from the royalties of Malcolm X’s book written by Alex Haley. Haley later signed over his half of the royalties to Betty and her family. Betty then went back to college to obtain an undergraduate degree as well as a doctoral degree in higher education administration. She worked as an associate professor at Medgar Evers College in New York, and later as a university administrator and fund raiser.
Betty’s daughter Qubilah was prosecuted for hiring an assassin to kill Farrakhan, her father’s suspected murderer. However, Farrakhan chose to publicly defend Qubilah, which caused him and Betty to reconcile. Qubilah, however was sentenced to a rehabilitation program. While she was undergoing her sentence, Betty took in Qubilah’s son Malcolm to come and live with her. The 10 year old Malcolm set fire to his grandmother’s apartment, which caused Betty to sustain severe injuries that proved fatal. She died on June 1, 1997 at the age of 63.