Dr. Betty Shabazz’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, pays tribute to her mother’s legacy in this personal reflection.
I applaud the A&E Lifetime network for recognizing an important era in our nation’s history through a fictional account of the friendship between Dr. Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott-King. Historically these extraordinary women, along with their friend Myrlie Evers-Williams, were often referred to as, “The Three Widows of the Movement”. However, even a cursory two-hour examination of their lives reveals that their roles expanded beyond surviving wives of famous husbands. Each of these exceptional women turned tragedy into triumph. Each woman sacrificed personal freedom to become a pillar in the civil rights movement. Each one continued the legacy of her martyred husband. Each became a warrior for social justice in her own right—as did countless others whom are still unrecognized.
These selfless women however would also become sisters who treasured each other. They served as counsel, confidante and friend to one another. They would call themselves the Three Musketeers as they stood together to provide, as no one else could, the love and support needed to nurture their families through extremely difficult times. They aided each other in adapting to life without their husbands and to rearing children who had been tragically deprived of their fathers. It is fitting that these women are held in high esteem and regarded as peerless role models. May they always be remembered for their grace, resilience and respective contributions to advance the cause of peace, equality and freedom for all of humanity.
Dr. Betty Shabazz
"My most vivid memory of Betty is that she was first and foremost a woman who cherished her family. A wife and mother, she was extremely protective of her children. Mothers instinctively protect those they love, even more so in the face of danger. And, when you are the wife of a civil rights activist whose philosophy is perceived equally by blacks and whites as caustic, you become the shield that wards off the evil spears of hatred. You place yourself in harm’s way.” - MYRLIE EVERS-WILLIAMS
My mother witnessed the martyrdom of her husband, Hajj Malik Shabazz, Malcolm X, on Sunday, February 21, 1965 at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. My older sisters, Attallah, Qubilah and I were seated with our mother up front and stage right. We were present for my father’s address regarding his new federation, the Organization of Afro American Unity (OAAU). Gamilah, who was an infant, remained at home with the Wallace Family where we were staying because our home had been firebombed one-week prior on Valentine’s Day. The Wallace’s are related to Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, all of whom were essential to the support network for my parents. I have no clear recollection of the horrific day because I wasn’t quite three years old—but I am certain that for many it is a day that will always be vividly remembered. I am told that our mother shielded my sisters and me from the gunfire with her body before attempting to save her husband with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Needless to say, her life had forever changed.
Betty Shabazz was the wife of a man who challenged a government that was historically unjust. She was harassed and placed under surveillance by the Nation of Islam (NOI), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). One week prior to her husband’s assassination, she, and her family, had been terrorized by a firebomb thrown into the nursery where her four babies slept. On the day my father was slain, she was left alone—widowed, homeless (because of the firebomb) and penniless (because the millions of dollars my father raised for the Nation of Islam went to the NOI). In a fateful moment, she had become a single parent of four babies while pregnant with my twin sisters.
My mother persevered through much adversity because she possessed faith in God, self-respect, and an awareness of history; most especially, she was astute in Africa's significant contribution to world history. Sister Betty refused to live her life as a victim. She was upbeat, positive and known for the saying, “Find the good and praise it!” She never permitted life’s challenges to defeat her. Her perspective did not allow her to say, “No, I can't do this.” As a result, she soared. All the while, giving of her self to many. She often said to me, “Ilyasah, just as one must drink water; one must give back.” And that she did. Dr. Betty Shabazz was a resilient and courageous woman who would become a champion in the movement for human rights.
My mother was born Betty Dean Sanders in Pinehurst, Georgia. She eventually moved to Detroit, Michigan where she attended high school and joined the Delta Sigma Theta Sprites. She was a member of an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, attended her mother’s Sunday school classes and worked at her father's shoe repair store. After graduating high school, Betty attended the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, the alma mater of both her parents. My mother relocated to New York because she refused to accept the oppressive racism of the Jim Crow south. As an eighteen year old young adult, she was already intolerant of injustice and unequal treatment. Young Betty courageously uprooted herself and relocated to Brooklyn, New York. With faith in God she was confident that she would thrive in her new surrounding. Soon after her arrival in New York, Betty enrolled in Brooklyn State Hospital School of Nursing. While pursuing her studies, she was invited by a friend to attend an NOI meeting. There she heard a young, dynamic speaker named Malcolm X. You know the story: after the speech, they discussed the racism she encountered in Alabama, and she began to understand its causes, pervasiveness, and effects. She would become an instructor at Mosque No. 7, teaching health and hygiene to the Muslim Girls in Training (MGT) and attend all of my father’s lectures. Upon Betty’s graduation from nursing school, my father proposed and they were married within one week. Their relationship was an example of partnership, love, and mutual respect.
After my father's transition, most of what I learned about his humanity was communicated through my mother. She was committed to serve as an educator and role model, and to raise her and her husband’s six daughters to be self-assured, African American, Muslim women who were proud of their heritage and identity. My mother was determined that my sisters and I would have a culturally rich and diverse education. She worked hard so that we could attend private schools, summer camps in Vermont with Quaker and Native American values, yoga classes, music lessons, dance lessons and tutorials in Islam and the history of Africa and the Diaspora—a great sacrifice so that each of her girls would be prepared to encounter the injustices that plagued society.
Sister Betty earned a Nursing Degree from Brooklyn State Hospital School of Nursing, a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Public Health and Education from Jersey City State College, a Master of Arts Degree in Public Health Education from Jersey City State College and a Ph.D. in Education Administration from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She was wise, regal and compassionate throughout her life. When she relocated to Westchester County with her six daughters, my mother founded the Young Mothers Educational Development (YMED) program. Sister Betty was the ideal role model for poise, fortitude and forward planning despite less than ideal circumstances. YMED initiatives provided support for pregnant unwed teens so that pregnancy and childrearing responsibilities did not prevent the stigmatized young ladies from completing their education. For example, after giving birth, the young unwed mothers could place their babies in the YMED Day Care Center and continue classes with the peace of mind necessary to focus on their studies. In 1976, mother joined the faculty of Medgar Evers College (MEC) in Brooklyn, NY as an assistant professor. She taught health sciences, advanced to Director of Public Relations, and was eventually appointed as the college’s Cultural Attache’.
In response to a desire to be of greater service to the community at large, Dr. Shabazz sought membership in The Links, Inc. In response to capacity memberships in the chapter nearest her, she and two of her local friends founded the Greater Hudson Valley Chapter. My mother successfully recruited myriad African American professional women to join her chapter of the organization. I stood proudly with her at our induction ceremony. Dr. Shabazz was particularly adept at pooling the members’ resources for the benefit of others who were less fortunate—whether in this country or abroad. Under her leadership as the Director of International Trends and Services, for example, our group provided medical and dental care, books, dolls, clothes, counseling and so many other services to communities in the United States, Africa, South America and the Caribbean. Dr. Shabazz was selected to participate on United States delegations with Presidents Ford, Carter, and Clinton. She also served as a United States delegate to the Women's International Conference in Bejing, China, and continued to travel internationally in the cause of social justice. She was an outspoken advocate for human rights, women's rights, racial tolerance, and the goal of self-determination and self-reliance for the Diaspora.
My mother passed away in the summer of 1997. President Bill Clinton and many other governmental officials telephoned their condolences and the United States flag was lowered to half-staff. Her Janazah and funeral services were attended by such luminaries as Coretta Scott King, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Maya Angelou, Dr. Adelaide Sanford, U.S. Representative Maxine Waters, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, her colleagues in both Delta Sigma Theta, Inc. and The Links, Inc., along with countless others. Fittingly, her devotion to providing quality medical care to underserved populations was commemorated later that year with dedication of the Betty Shabazz Health Center by the Brooklyn Community Healthcare Network (CHN). The Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. established Dr. Betty Shabazz Delta Academies nation-wide in recognition of their sorority sister’s outstanding contributions as an educator and role model for women. The Shabazz Academies promote principles of sisterhood, scholarship and service for girls, aged 11-14. Medgar Evers College and the New York State Legislature also honored my mother with endowment of the Dr. Betty Shabazz Social Justice Chair. Each year the occupant, Dr. Andree McLaughlin, convenes “The Shabazz Conversations” to pay tribute to my mother and other deserving honorees of vision, activism and courage.
Dr. Betty Shabazz was determined to protect her husband’s legacy from distortion. She worked closely with Pathfinder Press to ensure publication of volumes that would accurately recount his life and works. She established the Malcolm X Medical Scholarship at Columbia University. Recipients must commit to providing medical service to underserved populations for at least one year after graduation. Subsequently, Columbia University established the Betty Shabazz Nursing Scholarship program. My mother was relentless in her efforts to honor her husband with a United States postage stamp of his image. In 1999, the Postal Service issued the Malcolm X Black Heritage stamp. Dr. Shabazz also formed a coalition of community, political, and educational leaders to establish the Malcolm X Memorial Center (MXMC) at the Audubon Ballroom. She was determined to transform the Audubon from a place of fatal tragedy to one that would triumphantly honor her husband’s legacy. After her transition, our family reconceived the institution as The Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center at the former Audubon Ballroom.