Who was Malcolm X's wife? Betty Shabazz was killed in fire set by grandson

Betty X or more popularly known as Betty Shabazz's life is as brave and awe-inspiring as her famous husband

                            Who was Malcolm X's wife? Betty Shabazz was killed in fire set by grandson
Betty Shabazz and Malcolm X (Photo of Betty Shabazz from Wikipedia/ Photo of Malcolm x from Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Malcolm X once said, "The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman." Malcolm X, one of the most famous civil rights leaders, often used his public platform to speak about the issues of women alongside racial injustice. 

While Malcolm went around the country giving his famous thought-provoking and inspiring speeches, his wife Betty X, was always by his side firmly motivating her husband in his pursuit for racial justice. Betty X or more popularly known as Betty Shabazz's life is as brave and awe-inspiring as her famous husband. Just like her husband, Betty's life too was cut short in a tragic fire accident. In a span of 63 years, Betty's life was nothing short of a rollercoaster ride. From growing up in a very sheltered environment to witnessing her husband being gunned down and raising six daughters as a widow, Betty is truly the epitome of a strong woman. Read on to know all about Betty, the widow of Malcolm X.


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American civil rights activist Malcolm X (1925 - 1965) speaks at a podium during a Black Muslim rally in Washington DC, circa 1963. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Who was Malcolm X's wife Betty Shabazz?

Betty Shabazz was born Betty Dean Sanders in May 1934 to Ollie Mae Sanders and Shelman Sandlin out of wedlock. According to reports, Oliie, who was a teenager when she had Betty, was abusive toward Betty while raising her as a single mother in Detroit. At around the age of 11, she was taken in by Lorenzo and Helen Malloy. Her foster parents were very prominent members of society and were very passionate about promoting the well-being of Blacks. They raised Betty in a very sheltered environment where she was shielded away from racism and talks of racial inequality and injustice until she moved out of her foster home to pursue higher education. 

After graduating from high school, Betty decided to attend Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which exposed her to racism. She was deeply disturbed and traumatized by the racism she not only witnessed but also experienced in the south. So, she moved to New York City and traded her dream of becoming an educator to become a nurse. She enrolled herself in the Brooklyn State College School of Nursing and became a nurse. It was there that she was introduced to Malcolm X by a friend.

Portrait of human rights activist Malcolm X reading stories about himself in a pile of newspapers, circa 1963. (Photo by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Meeting and marrying Malcolm X

In 'Loving and Losing Malcolm', Betty recounted how she came about to meet Malcolm. It all began when she was invited to a dinner party at the Nation of Islam temple in Harlem. After thoroughly enjoying the food at the party and later attending the Muslims' lecture, Betty was asked to join the Nation of Islam. But she politely declined saying her mother would disapprove of it. Her friend then insisted that she should once again attend another dinner party and listen to the minister talk and that would convince her to convert.

Betty agreed as she was thrilled at the idea of enjoying the food again. She then happened to meet the minister at the second dinner. She said, "Then, I looked over and saw this man on the extreme right aisle sort of galloping to the podium. He was tall, he was thin, and the way he was galloping it looked as though he was going someplace much more important than the podium. ... He got to the podium—and I sat up straight. I was impressed with him." Ever since she first laid her eyes on Malcolm X, she was instantly intrigued and smitten by him. 

The two hit it off almost instantly and soon Betty found herself attending all of Malcolm's speeches and having long, deep conversations with him. Since one-on-one dates weren't allowed in the Nation of Islam teachings, Betty and Malcolm went on group dates. She converted and joined the Nation of Islam in 1956. He finally asked her to marry him over a phone call. The couple got married in January 1958 in Lansing, Michigan. 

The couple had six daughters together. Their younger daughters- twins Malikah and Malaak were born seven months after Malcolm's assassination.

Post Malcolm X's assassination

In March 1964, Malcolm announced that he was leaving the Nation of Islam. The couple became Sunni Muslims and changed their names. Betty changed her name from Betty X to Betty Shabazz. Almost a year later, Malcolm was assassinated while speaking at a meeting. Betty and her daughters were in the audience when Malcolm was shot by three men. 

Soon after Malcolm's death, she began having nightmares where she relived her husband's death. Betty was also worried about her six children and was stressed over how to support herself and her little kids as a single mother. She lived off the royalty checks that she received from her husband's autobiography and speaking engagements. She also went back to college and received a doctoral degree in higher education and became an associate professor of health sciences at New York’s Medgar Evers College.

Betty did everything she could to ensure that all six of her daughters received the best education and led a good life. 

African-American activist and Muslim minister Malcolm X (1925 - 1965) addresses a meeting, UK, 22nd November 1964. (Photo by Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


Betty Shabazz's death

When Betty's second daughter Qubillah got in trouble with the law and had to undergo treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, her 12-year-old son Malcolm Shabazz was sent to live with Betty. Malcolm was unhappy with his living situation and was looking for ways to go back to his mother. One day he set Betty's apartment on fire, hoping it would make his grandmother send him back home. 

Unfortunately, Malcolm's plans backfired and Betty ended up sustaining severe burns to over 80% of her body, and soon succumbed to it at the age of 61. Malcolm served four years in juvenile detention for the fire. In an interview with The New York Times, he expressed his remorse and regret over the incident. He said, "(I was) being bad, doing anything to get them to send me back to my mother. Then I got the idea to set the fire. I set a fire in the hallway, and I didn't think the whole thing through thoroughly, but she didn't have to run through that fire ... There was another way out of the house from her room. I guess what she thought was, I was stuck, and she had to run and get me because it was in front of my room as well. She ran through the fire. I did not picture that happening, that she would do that." "I just wanted her to know I was sorry and I wanted to know she accepted my apology, that I didn't mean it. But I would get no response, and I really wanted that response," he added.

Betty was buried next to her husband at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

You can learn more about Malcolm X's life on Netflix's documentary 'Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali' available for streaming from September 9. 

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