Celebrating Sister Betty

A Legacy of Learning, Friendship and Love

May 28 will mark the 87th birthday of freedom fighter Betty Shabazz. Yup, she and her beloved Malcolm (May 19) were both preparing for new trips around the sun at this very moment. “Sister Betty” was an icon in my mother’s household. A paragon of Black woman excellence; I was raised to revere her. This feeling permeated many households across Black families. It was a sentiment solidified in Ms. Lauryn Hill’s now epic song Everything is Everything when she quipped “MCs ain’t ready to take it to the Serengeti. My rhymes is heavy like the mind of sister Betty (Betty Shabazz).” This line completely sealed my admiration. Sadly, as L-Boogie was recording those words, Dr. Betty Shabazz took her final breaths on this plane of life and left us to continue her legacy. Here are a few things I have learned about her that continue to inspire me.

She did not play about her education.

Photo by Associated Press; photographer unknown (1971)

Sister Betty began her post-secondary education at what is now Tuskegee University. Her dream was to become a teacher. Unfortunately, the racism she experienced in Alabama led her to pursue her education elsewhere. As she headed to New York and started school there, she opted for a career in healthcare and became a nurse. This was also around the time when she met and married the man many would come to know as Malcolm X, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz. Much of their relationship centered on activism and raising their daughters. At the time of his assassination, Shabazz was pregnant with their youngest children, twins Malaak and Malikah. In 1965 at the age of 28, she became a widow facing the daunting task of raising 6 daughters on her own. And though it must have been a rough road, she moved ahead with intense purpose. Her education and that of her daughters became even more central to Shabbazz’ daily life. She went on to earn baccalaureate and master’s degrees in 1969 and 1970 respectively. During the following years, she dedicated herself to earning a Ph.D. in higher education administration from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. The commute from New York to Amherst was taxing but Dr. Shabazz had never lost sight of her dream. She dedicated herself to making education possible for generations of students at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn and empowering students around the world.

She was a dedicated friend.

(L-R Shabazz, King and Evers) 

The murder of Malcolm X was one of many asassinations that rocked 1960s Black culture and tested our communal strength. Betty Shabazz was part of a strong friend group that supported each other through these difficult times and reclaimed the legacies of their slain husbands to ensure they would not be written out of history. This group included Coretta Scott King, widow of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Myrlie Evers whose husband’s name had become the symbol of freedom representing the college where Dr. Shabazz taught. Their friendship was a bond that brought them joy and comfort for decades. They understood that caring for one another was an absolute must. While they shared the public limelight to bolster the sense of commitment to the struggle their husbands had died in, they also shared vacations, children’s activities, and sisters retreats with one another to replenish their faith in the future. This may explain why people who got to meet Dr. Shabazz found her so peaceful and free.

“Her spirit bore no burdens.”

Shabazz with fellow activists: (L-R)  community organizer Dorothy Height, Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY), and contralto singer Marian Anderson. Photo Credit: Hal Mathewson for NY Daily News via Getty Images.

This is how Mikki Taylor described Dr. Shabazz in her  2018 book Editor-in-Chic. She, along with many others, recount that Sister Betty always had a sense of calm and open heartedness about her. Daughter Ilyasah stresses that in her many works and speeches where she discusses her mother’s most legendary trait – love. Ilyasah Shabbazz recently spoke to a Pittsburgh, PA audience at a 1Hood Media event saying: “To see her husband gunned down in front of her and still be kind and still be loving and still be giving, she never stopped. So I’m just so grateful for her exemplary model and her unconditional love that she gave me.”

How has the legacy of Dr. Betty Shabazz inspired your life and plans?