Betty Shabazz was 28 years old and pregnant the Sunday afternoon in 1965 when a fusillade of bullets felled Malcolm X in Harlem's Audubon Ballroom. Seated on a bench near where her husband was speaking, Shabazz swept her four young daughters to the floor and covered them with her body as the gunfire crackled.
In the years after the assassination of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, as Malcolm then called himself, her instinct remained the same: to protect her family.
Brick by brick, she built a fire wall of privacy and security around the four girls who witnessed their father's slaughter and the twin daughters born later that year.
Only three decades later, with all six daughters grown, did a piece of Betty Shabazz's fire wall crumble.
Her second-eldest daughter, Qubilah, was indicted in an alleged plot to murder Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. The indictment was dismissed in an agreement with prosecutors.
A week ago, the flames caught Shabazz, 61, herself.
She was burned over 80 percent of her body in her sixth-floor Yonkers, N.Y., apartment.
The fire was allegedly set by her troubled 12-year-old grandson Malcolm, Qubilah's child. It has left Shabazz clinging to life in the burn unit of a Bronx hospital. The fire may bring a tragic end to a remarkable existence.
It is a life in which Betty Sanders, a quiet Methodist girl from Detroit, became Sister Betty X, the dutiful Muslim wife of one of the century's most charismatic men, and finally Betty Shabazz, a single parent who raised six daughters against great odds, earned her doctorate and finally took her place alongside Coretta Scott King and Myrlie Evers-Williams in the civil rights pantheon.
"There's an old black saying: She had to find a way out of no way," said William Strickland, a University of Massachusetts political scientist who has known Shabazz for 35 years.
"It is very difficult to raise one child, not to mention six, especially with the ambiguous legacy as the widow of Malcolm X, an unfairly reviled figure in America."
James E. Turner, a friend and director of Cornell University's Africana Studies and Research Center, said Shabazz "emerged as a major public figure in her own right and a woman of considerable voice and influence.
"It's amazing how this has happened."
By her own description, Betty Shabazz was sheltered before she met Malcolm in 1956. An only child, she was a sorority girl at Northern High School in Detroit.
"Pick a week out of my life. If you understood that week, you understood my life," she told Essence magazine in an uncharacteristically personal 1992 interview.
"I went to school from Monday to Friday. On Friday I went to the movies. On Saturday I was at my parents' store. On Sunday I went to church."
She enrolled at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, her father's alma mater, but she was uncomfortable in the South's racial climate. She decided to switch her focus from elementary education to nursing, and moved to the Brooklyn (N.Y.) State School of Nursing, from which she received her R.N.
A nurse's aide at the hospital took her to the Nation of Islam's mosque. On a second visit, Betty got her first look at the minister, a rangy, red-haired, 30ish man who had dropped his "slave name" of Malcolm Little and was known as Malcolm X.
"I remember thinking, 'My God, this man is totally malnourished,' " Shabazz told Essence. "He needs some liver, some spinach, some beets and broccoli."
Malcolm and Betty's relationship was slow to develop. They never "dated"; it was a strict Muslim courtship. They went out in groups.
One day in January 1958, Malcolm called unexpectedly from a pay phone and proposed. They were married in Lansing, Mich., news that shocked her parents, who disapproved of her religious conversion.
Her father turned to Betty with tears in his eyes and asked: "What have we done to you to make you hate us so?"
Malcolm had little time for romance. "I guess by now I will say I love Betty," he said in Alex Haley's "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."
"If I have work to do when I am home, the little time I am at home, she lets me have the quiet I need to work in."
Jean Reynolds, 71, who knew Sister Betty X before she married Malcolm, said: "We were just the sisters, you know what I'm saying? I never questioned that women might have been kept in the background."
Sister Betty chafed under Malcolm's authority. In their seven-year marriage, she briefly left him three times. But their relationship grew in mutual respect. She began to travel and set up classes for women at mosques.
"She was educated and trained, and I think she wanted to use her skills. Eventually she became a leader in her own right," said Yuri Kochiyama, a New York community activist.
In 1964, Malcolm split with Elijah Muhammad and left the Nation of Islam to form his own mosque. Eight days before the assassination, the family's home in Queens was firebombed.
Then the assassination, for which three Nation of Islam members were convicted.
"I remember her asking me not to leave her" after the shooting, said Reynolds. "I stood with her. What I wanted to do was sink down in the ground. I had to make myself strong to be there for her."
Starting her life over
Betty Shabazz was left to start almost from scratch.
She credited a pilgrimage to Mecca a month after the assassination with giving her spiritual strength to raise her daughters without bitterness. Royalties from the autobiography helped, as did fund-raisers held by friends and grass-roots activists.
The family bought a house in Mount Vernon, N.Y. She put the children in private schools and tutored them in French and Arabic.
"She sent them to the United Nations International School," said Kochiyama, who still is close to the eldest Shabazz daughter, Attallah, an actress in California.
"She wanted the kids to grow beyond the black community or even beyond America."
Shabazz joined the Jamaica Rifle and Pistol Club, said Herman Ferguson, a follower of Malcolm X who was one of its founders. She would shoot with them at ranges.
In 1969, Shabazz gave interviews to Look and Ebony magazines, posing with her daughters under a portrait of Malcolm X.
"Her few close friends," Fletcher Knebel wrote in Look, "have noted an outward serenity and a private torment, a royalty of manner and person, a grace, a desire for seclusion, a dignity, a moodiness and, above all, a rich femininity."
She appeared at events celebrating her late husband, but "she was very subdued, almost uncomfortable, trying still to be inconspicuous," said Turner of Cornell.
She completed her B.A. in public health education at Jersey City State College. In 1975, Shabazz earned her doctorate in school administration and curriculum development from the University of Massachusetts.
The next year, she went to work at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, first as a professor of health administration and later as director of communications and public relations.
"I'm a Sunni Muslim and as observant as I can be," she told Essence. "I don't eat pork. I've made pilgrimage. I acknowledge the oneness of God. I pray. I contribute to charity. I fast. And I work hard -- I work until I can't see.
"Then I go home at night and the only thing I can think of is eating and sleeping."
Move into public arena
By the mid-1980s, Shabazz's daughters (Attallah, Qubilah, Ilyasah, Amilah, Malaak and Malikah) were all grown.
And Malcolm X's legacy -- which his wife had worked so hard to maintain -- was attracting interest among young people and academics. Shabazz's life began to change, friends say. She re-entered the public arena.
In 1983, she started a weekly radio talk show on WBLS-FM in New York.
Yet she was still reluctant: "I don't want to be on the front line. I'm not a leader; I'm a supporter."
In 1985, Shabazz attended the International Decade for Women conference in Kenya, where she was revered, said Hortense Canady, a past president of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, which Shabazz joined in 1974.
"It just struck me that how in your own country you are not honored," said Canady. "Everybody knew of her in Kenya. People came from everywhere to meet her. It was almost like a pilgrimage."
Shabazz helped organize Delta's Summit II, a 1985 project to help single parents, a subject of particular interest to Shabazz.
Woman of the middle class
Herman Ferguson, who had fled the country in 1970 after a
conspiracy conviction, noticed the change in Betty Shabazz when he returned in 1989 and was sent to prison.
She "was now in the academic world, professional women, that circle," he said. "It was the world of middle-class America."
Marge Battle, a spokeswoman for Medgar Evers College, works across the hall from Shabazz. She described her colleague as a woman dedicated to human rights and a tireless worker for the college. She sometimes dips into her pocket to help the scholarship fund.
"She walked with kings and queens, and after walking with kings and queens, she came right back to Medgar Evers and walked with the common people, and I think that says a lot," said Battle, who wore a blue ribbon.
Those praying for Shabazz have started wearing blue or lavender ribbons, her favorite colors.
"Here, she could be comfortable," said Doris Withers, Medgar Evers' assistant provost. "We didn't deal with her as an icon."
Recipes, diets, sales, a womanly pride in a trim waistline -- these were the types of things Shabazz talked about in her world outside the public persona.
Once she and Deborah Shanley, dean of the school of liberal arts, showed up wearing the same outfit. After they gave each other mutual compliments, Shabazz said: "I think we shop at the same place," said Shanley.
Thereafter they swapped coupons and the latest news about sales at Lord and Taylor.
Margaret B. Green, special assistant to the president, and Shabazz bonded over the tuna sandwiches Green brought in for lunch. Shabazz often prodded Green for her secret. "I never gave her the recipe," said Green, smiling.
In public, she was gracious.
"People not only pulled at Betty, but the questions and the probing that they did could border on rudeness and crudeness," said Charlotte Phoenix, chairman of the education department.
If someone went overboard, Shabazz could cut them short with just a look, Phoenix said.
She is the master "of the long pause," Withers said. "You cannot intrude because if you intrude she will shut you down."
But, added Green, "She could shut you down with a smile."
'This is going to end'
In 1991, with "X" hats and Malcolm T-shirts proliferating, Shabazz retained CMG Worldwide of Indianapolis to license Malcolm X's name and likeness.
"People were using Malcolm's material and copyrighting it as their own," she said in a 1994 interview with The Sun.
"I woke up one morning totally nonplused and thought, 'This is abuse in the broadest, deepest and wildest sense. If I don't sleep, eat or anything else, this is going to end.' "
In 1992, Spike Lee's movie "Malcolm X" appeared, and Shabazz JTC was at center stage. She attended the Harlem premiere with Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston and other celebrities. An estimated $100 million in Malcolm goods were sold in 1991-1992, which should have netted Shabazz up to 5 percent in royalties.
Through it all, lawyer Mark Roesler of CMG said, she remained down-to-earth.
"She's a very determined lady, and she never wanted to accept that other people owed things to her. She took responsibility on herself," he said.
"She always dressed nice but, even in the big year of the movie, she would always make a point to tell me that she went shopping for several hours and found something on sale.
"Once she had on this beautiful blazer. When I complimented her, she said, 'I found this at Goodwill.' She has a sense of humor, but I don't think she was kidding me."
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who has known Shabazz for 15 years, said she "has developed over the years into her own kind of leader, probably more by default than by design."
In March 1994, Shabazz was asked in a New York TV interview whether Farrakhan had anything to do with Malcolm X's death.
"Of course, yes," she replied. "Yes. I mean, it was a matter of -- it was a badge of honor. I mean, nobody kept it a secret."
Later that spring, Shabazz and Farrakhan, who has denied plotting Malcolm's assassination but conceded fueling anti-Malcolm sentiment, attended a leadership summit in Baltimore organized by the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.
After her daughter Qubilah's indictment in 1995, Farrakhan suggested Qubilah had been set up and offered to aid her defense.
At a May 1995 event at Harlem's Apollo Theater, Shabazz and Farrakhan publicly buried the hatchet. Once again, her instinct was to protect her family.
Turner said Shabazz "was mostly concerned about her daughter."
"She wanted to get her daughter extricated from that. When it came to a question of how she felt vs. the broader interest of her daughter, it was an easy choice for her."
Shabazz spoke at the Million Man March later that year.
A tragic full circle
The Yonkers fire -- and young Malcolm Shabazz's alleged involvement -- made some of Malcolm X's followers feel that events had come full circle.
"It seemed like a continuation of the tragedy that has dogged the Little and Shabazz families down through the decades," Herman Ferguson said.
Malcolm X "came from a broken home, had a mother with mental problems. Malcolm X was sent to live with his half-sister. Young Malcolm's mother had psychological problems. He was sent to live with his grandmother."
"The parallels there are inescapable," he said. "One wonders if he's in a crucible. He may turn out to be like his grandfather. We would hope that he would."
Ron Daniels, co-chairman of the national Malcolm X Commemoration Commission, said the fire was part of "a continuing tragedy," in which the trauma of Malcolm X's assassination was visited on Qubilah Shabazz and her son.
"It is tremendous pain that the family bears and a tremendous scar we bear as African people in this country," he said.
In the Bronx, a stream of visitors flowed in and out of Jacobi Medical Center, where Shabazz was heavily sedated and in extremely critical condition.
Asking for a miracle
Blue and lavender were on every blazer, blouse and shirt Friday as more than 200 people, a diverse crowd of young and old, black and white, gathered for a prayer vigil.
"We are not ashamed to ask for a miracle," the Rev. Barbara Lucas said.
The show of concern is at once a prayer for, and a celebration of, Shabazz's life.
"Betty never died back then in the Audubon Ballroom when Malcolm did," Mfume said. "She found a way to keep on living, keep on learning and obviously keep on loving. She raised a family on her own, educated herself and, in later years, became a leader."
Strickland, the Massachusetts professor, said he had often tried -- without success -- to persuade Shabazz to write her story.
"It's one of the great untold stories," he said. "One of the great potential tragedies of this situation is now we may never get the story that only Betty can tell."
Pub Date: 6/08/97