OBITUARY : Betty Shabazz

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The Independent Online
There are people - outstanding people - doomed to be remembered less for themselves than their entanglement in history made by others. Betty Shabazz was one of these, a devoted wife and exemplary mother, an assiduous and effective campaigner for civil rights. First, last and always however, through a life overshadowed and torn asunder by the feuds of radical black America, she was the wife of Malcolm X.

Little is known of her early life, except that she was born in Detroit in 1934 and brought up by foster parents in the New York area. But in 1956 she enrolled in the Nation of Islam, the proud and puritanical black Muslim sect led by Elijah Mohammed, and soon came across the minister born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, who now called himself Malcolm X.

In those days Betty Shabazz, who had studied at Tuskegee Institute, Brooklyn State Hospital School of Nursing and Jersey State College, was one of the few college graduates who converted to the Nation. I was "halfway impressed by her intelligence", Malcolm would later write - more than a mite condescendingly - of his future wife. More important, "Sister Betty" was "a good Muslim woman", devoted and self-effacing, tolerant of his long absences and constant 18-hour work days. Their courtship was austere: no conversation was personal, no date without a chaperone. Even Malcolm's proposal was long-distance, a call to New York from a payphone at a Detroit petrol station.

They married in 1958, and she would bear him six children, the last two still unborn when she went to the Audubon Theatre in Harlem on Sunday 21 February 1965 to attend a speech by her husband. By then Malcolm X had become the most controversial symbol of black America, feared and loathed by whites for his firebrand oratory, yet actually estranged from Elijah Mohammed after urging less confrontational and isolationist policies for the Nation. Hardly had Malcolm X begun to speak than shots rang out. As Betty screamed in horror, 16 bullets tore into his body. He died instantly.

For decades afterwards she would try to shield her children from the horror of that day, moving the family from the city to the supposed safety of the suburbs, sending them to the best possible schools, and hiding from them every book or photo which showed how their father met his end. She herself tried to rebuild a normal life, earning a doctorate degree in education and becoming an administrator at Medgar Evers college, in charge of civil rights programmes, tirelessly urging non-violence.

But the past would not release her, nor did she wish it to. "My children think my persona is me," she would say. "But actually it is their father's." And with him, the old schisms lived on. When the split came with Elijah Mohammed, Malcolm was succeeded as the Nation's spokesman by Louis Farrakhan, who denounced him as "a dog" who was "marked for death" by his disloyalty to the leader.

Unsurprisingly, although three men were convicted of Malcolm's murder, the Shabazz family (and many others) were convinced Farrakhan had a hand in the deed.

And thus the second tragedy of Betty Shabazz's life - the bombshell news in 1995 that her daughter Qubilah had been indicted of plotting to kill Farrakhan, by now himself the Nation's leader and, like Malcolm before him, the most demonised black leader in America. There were other strange parallels too, notably allegations that the FBI had been behind Qubilah's conspiracy - just as in 1965 J. Edgar Hoover was suspected of helping engineer the assassination of the man then regarded as the prime threat to racial harmony in America.

Ultimately, the indictment was dropped, in return for Qubilah being placed on probation to undergo psychiatric and and alcoholism treatment. Meanwhile Betty Shabazz and Farrakhan were publicly reconciled at a remarkable public ceremony at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, and in October 1995 she took part in Farrakhan's "Million Man March" in Washington. But the third and final family tragedy was still to come.

In mid-1997 Qubilah's son Malcolm, named after the grandfather he never knew, was sent to live with his grandmother. To his new neighbours he seemed a normal if somewhat subdued 12-year-old, "a quiet kind of kid". In truth though, he was a tormented child, sent to New York by his mother to get him away from a violent gang of friends where they were living in Texas. The boy apparently hated living in New York, and bitterly resented his grandmother. So, if police are to be believed, he set the fire which would kill her. Thus a wretched wheel came full circle. A "black princess and mother" of the modern civil rights movement had devoted her life to one man named Malcolm.

It would be ended by their grandson, also called Malcolm, in an arson attack as lethal as it was pointless.

Betty Shabazz, civil rights activist and college administrator: born Detroit 1934; married 1958 Malcolm X (died 1965; six daughters); died New York 23 June 1997.

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