When Betty Shabazz worked up enough nerve to watch “Malcolm X,” the full-length movie by Spike Lee about her husband, she took one of her daughters to hold her hand.
It was a difficult afternoon. She had to tell herself she was a “big girl.” She said she knew she would want to bring even the screen Malcolm home.
What she saw on the screen was a vision of herself as a strong and confident force. It wasn’t accurate, she said laughingly soon afterward in a New York hotel suite. “I was not as self-assured as she was,” she said of actress Angela Bassett. “I have always wished and dreamed that I could be that smooth.”
But the Betty Shabazz of the 1950s and early ‘60s long ago faded in the powerful light of the mature woman. Bassett played her strong because that’s what she had to become, from the moment when 16 shots rang out in New York’s Audubon Ballroom on Feb. 21, 1965, when Shabazz covered her daughters with her own pregnant body as her husband was killed before her eyes.
Shabazz, who died Monday at 61 from burns she suffered in a fire allegedly set by her grandson, was thrust into a miserable but special role in modern black history: She was one of the widows. The deaths of Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. tore through the nation. After the men died young, the women emerged to explain and defend the men, and answer the questions. What would Malcolm, Martin, Medgar think of O.J. Simpson, retired Gen. Colin Powell, Bill Clinton’s civil rights agenda?
Shabazz was different from Myrlie Evers-Williams, who moved far away from the death scene in Mississippi, built a corporate career, spoke out for women’s equality and now has returned to the civil rights fold as chairwoman of the NAACP. She was different from Coretta Scott King, who fought to build memorials of legislation and social action that reflected King’s values well and who fought for ownership of the King name.
Shabazz built a following of her own in the years since the murder of Malcolm X. She believed deeply in uniting with politically active black women, developed her own proteges and worked hard for political, educational and family causes.
“That part of her that is all Betty is what is most remarkable,” Eleanor Holmes Norton, a friend for 30 years, said recently. “Many would have been satisfied to have been the wife of a great man who was assassinated. What people forget is that many great men married great women.”
The three widows, all now with their children raised, their lives at least once immortalized in film, and their family’s strong beliefs part of a public conversation, became friends. They had planned a second vacation together earlier this month.
“Out of our common tragedy, suffering, our experience as mothers, co-workers, women, we had a lot in common. She saw me as knowing I understood, and I saw her as knowing that she understood. We didn’t have to explain, we didn’t have to apologize,” King said.
Yet the two women didn’t dwell in the past but went to spas and ate good dinners. The only time King saw Shabazz weep was during a ceremony two years ago in Washington. “Our daughters gave us the tributes. And her daughter Ilyasha spoke of her, and Betty kept looking up at her and the daughter put her arms around her and Betty got emotional. She started talking about how she was thinking she didn’t know how to explain to Ilyasha, then 2, about her father’s death,” King said.
The gentleness and generosity that King describes was felt by others. “I used to go shopping with her and I would have to stop buying because she would fight to pay the bill,” recalled C. DeLores Tucker, the president of the National Political Congress of Black Women. Once, she said, Shabazz took a cab 130 miles to surprise her at a ceremony when she couldn’t get a train.
Norton recalled that “when you get to talking to her on the phone, you talk longer than either one of you should. She has been one of the girls.”
In the hard years right after the assassination, Shabazz retreated from the spotlight, living quietly in a comfortable suburb of New York. She raised six daughters, went back to school and earned a doctorate, and worked for 20 years as a college administrator. Her admirers spoke of her fortitude and her dignity; her sense of humor; the trademark flip hairstyle; her way with a curse word, which she said she learned as a rebuke to the telephone threats during her seven-year marriage to the outspoken Malcolm X.
While the mantle was thrust upon her, she had her own seeds as a fighter. Shabazz grew up in Detroit, daughter of strict, church-going parents. Her mother took her along to picket department stores. “I told her I thought I knew where your strength came from. I thought it was Malcolm but it was your mother,” said Tucker, recalling a conversation after Shabazz’s mother’s funeral. “And she said, “Oh, no, if anything I gave him strength.’ ”
In her public appearances of recent years, Shabazz was philosophical about the difficult times. Howard Dodson, director of Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, remembers a speech at a homeless shelter in New York.
“She wanted to communicate a triumphant vision. That things were possible, that you can take charge of your life, you can confront and transcend these problems. She brought an air of conviction,” he said. And she gave two visions: the one of Malcolm and the one of a woman reaching out and fighting the odds.