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Portrait Of Betty Shabazz

Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty

Behind Every Movement: Throughout Women’s History Month, we will be examining the women behind prominent male historical figures and the essential roles that they played.

Betty Shabazz was born Betty Dean Sanders on May 28, 1934, to a teenage mother, Ollie Mae Sanders, and 21-year-old Shelman Sandlin. According to, she spent the majority of her childhood in Detroit, but it is believed that she was born in Pinehurst, Georgia.

Some accounts suggest that Shabazz was abused by her mother, which is why she went to live with Lorenzo Malloy, a businessman, and Helen Malloy — a local activist —when she was 11 years old. According to NPS, Helen was a founding member of the Housewives League of Detroit — an African American women-led community organization that spearheaded campaigns in support of Black-owned businesses and boycotts against stores that discriminated against Black people and/or refused to hire Black employees.

Despite her parents’ activism work, Shabazz admits that she was shielded from racism as a child. Thus, she was deeply disturbed and caught off guard by the extreme racism that she experienced while attending Tuskeegee Institute in Alabama during the Jim Crow era. Troubled by her experiences, Shabazz departed Alabama for New York City where she attended the Brooklyn State College of Nursing. It was during this time that she was invited by a friend to a dinner at the Nation of Islam temple in Harlem. It was there that she met her future husband, Malcolm X.

Shabazz began attending Malcolm’s teachings and eventually converted to Islam. The couple wed on January 14, 1958, In Michigan, and welcomed six daughters by 1964. It was also in 1964 that the couple left the Nation of Islam, became Sunni Muslims, and adopted the last name, Shabazz. The following year, Malcolm was assassinated while delivering a speech in Harlem. The three shooters were apprehended and sentenced to life in prison. All were identified as members of the Nation of Islam. However,  a letter written by deceased NYPD officer Raymond A. Wood suggests police and FBI involvement in the conspiracy to assassinate Malcolm.

Following her husband’s murder, Shabazz raised her six children alone and did not remarry. She enrolled in Jersey City State College where she completed her undergraduate degree and would go on to earn a master’s degree in public health administration and a doctorate degree in higher education administration from the University of Massachusetts. She began giving lectures on the  African American condition and in 1976, she was hired as an associate professor of health sciences at Medgar Evers College in New York.

In 1997, Shabazz died after her 12-year-old grandson Malcolm set fire to her apartment. She spent three weeks in ICU at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx and underwent a series of surgeries before she succumbed to her injuries. She was 63 years old.


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