Betty Shabazz, the widow of famed civil rights icon Malcolm X, died on this day in 1997 at the age of 61.
Mrs. Shabazz was burned in a June 1 fire that was brought about by her grandson, Malcolm Shabazz, who was just 12 at the time. The family’s Mount Vernon home went up in flames, burning more than 80 percent of Shabazz’s body. Shabazz underwent major surgery yet remained in critical condition the entire time she was hospitalized.
Shabazz’s death rocked the nation, and several Black figures spoke upon her loss. “Millions of people look to her for some kind of understanding of the history of the struggle,” said Black activist and poet Amiri Baraka as reported by CNN at the time of the passing. “She’s the wife of one of the greatest African-American leaders of history.”
Born Betty Dean Sanders on May 28, 1934, the Detroit native had dreams of becoming a teacher as a young woman after leaving Tuskegee University before landing at Brooklyn State College School of Nursing in New York. It was in the city she met her future husband and converted to Islam in 1956. The pair married two years later, after a traditional Islamic courtship.
In 1976, Betty joined New York’s Medgar Evers College as an assistant professor. She taught health sciences and then became head of public relations as well as serving as its Cultural Attache’. Dr. Shabazz participated on various United States delegations with Presidents Ford, Carter, and Clinton. She also participated in 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.