This week’s World Changing Woman is Betty Dean Sanders, also known as Betty X, and was Betty Shabazz until her death. Of the three women (herself, Kasturba Gandhi and Coretta Scott King) Betty’s life was the most different, and sadly the most tragic. Her early beginnings were nothing like her predecessors.
Betty Dean Sanders was born 28, May 1934 to Ollie Mae Sanders and Shelman Sandlin. Sandlin was 21 years old and Ollie Mae Sanders was a teenager; the couple were unmarried. Betty Shabazz has always contended that she was born in Detroit Michigan, despite her high-school and college transcripts stating she was born in Pinehurst, Georgia. The mystery will never be cleared up as authorities in Georgia and Michigan have not been able to locate her birth certificate. Ollie Mae Sanders often beat Betty, for sport, for no reason, and the beatings were always excessive. Not unlike yours truly, someone came to Betty’s rescue. At approximately eleven years of age, she was taken in by Lorenzo and Helen Malloy. Lorenzo Malloy was a prominent business man in Detroit, his wife Helen was a founding member of the Housewives League of Detroit, a group of Black women who organized campaigns to support black-owned businesses and boycott stores that refused to hire black employees. Helen was a member of the NAACP and the National Conference of Negro Women, Unlike Kasturba, who was raised to aspire to be nothing more than a good wife, Betty had an example of what a strong black woman was. The Malloys were both active members of their local Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
It would appear the only disservice the Malloys did to young Betty was they never spoke with Sanders about racism. She was sheltered from the hate that existed in the southern parts of the United States, in 1955 Shabazz would state “Race relations were not discussed and it was hoped that by denying the existence of race problems, the problems would go away. Anyone who openly discussed race relations was quickly viewed as a ‘troublemaker.'” Try as the might to shield her, in 1942 when the Sojourner Truth housing project was desegregated there were races riots and again in 1943 at Belle Isle.
After high school Betty left Michigan to attend Tuskegee University (then Tuskegee Institute) in Alabama as it was her foster father Lorenzo’s Alma mater. Although the Malloys were proud they were afraid, that had not prepared their daughter for Southern racism, to be honest nothing can prepare you for Southern racism. Personally, I still avoid Mississippi at all costs, I’ll never set foot in Memphis, TN, and although I went to Alabama for a girl that I loved, nothing or no one could ever get me to return, Can you imagine Alabama in the early 1950’s?
It was such a culture shock that it began to effect Betty’s grades in a negative fashion. Her aging parents wanted Betty to return home. Betty had other plans and against her parents’ wishes, Sanders left Alabama for New York in 1953.
Obviously, New York would be where she would meet Malcolm X, but Betty went to New York to become a nurse, Again, the sheltered Betty would face another form of racism. Not the in your face “nigger gal” of the south, but the sneaky kind. The kind where the black nurses got the worse cases and shifts and were allowed to be verbally abused by white patients. While the racial climate in New York was better than the situation in Alabama, Betty frequently wondered whether she had merely exchanged Jim Crow racism for a more genteel prejudice. The answer in a word, was yes.
During her second year at nursing school an older nurse’s aid invited her to a dinner being thrown by the Nation Of Islam. Betty would remark that the food was delicious and that she had never had food this good in her life. At the end of the dinner she was invited to join the Nation, and Betty politely declined. When asked why she didn’t want to join, Betty stated, that she did not know she had been brought there to join. “Besides, my mother would kill me, and additionally I don’t even understand the philosophy.” Betty was raised Methodist and had every intention to stay Methodist. There was a conversation about a certain minister that wasn’t there that night but that Betty should come back to hear the minister speak and that he could better explain the teachings. Betty agreed to return, for the food. How could she know that returning for collard greens, fried chicken and cornbread would change her life forever.
That minister of course, was none other than Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) and Betty wasn’t expecting much other than a great meal. When Malcolm entered her vision she recalled how her demeanor changed when she caught a glimpse of Malcolm X. Betty recalled her very first impression: “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. How could she not be? Brother Malcolm was indeed The Man. Towering over everyone in the room, speaking so sure of himself, walking as if each step was purposeful.
It goes without saying that Betty Sanders began to regularly attend Minister Malcolm’s lectures at Temple Number Seven. After each lecture he would seek out Betty and they would talk. She would remark that he was selfless in helping others but often had no one on which he could lean on. He working tirelessly to open new temples and preach the words and teachings of Elijah Muhammad. It took a year but Betty converted to Islam and changed her last name to X in honor of the family name lost generations ago at the hands of slavery.
They didn’t have a conventional courtship, as the teaching of the Nation of Islam does not allow one on one dating. They were always in a group setting, but the two clearly loved and respected one another and married on 14, January 1958, the same day that Betty became a registered nurse. The couple had six daughters. Their names were Attallah, born in 1958 and named after Attila the Hun, Qubilah born in 1960 and named after Kubliah Khan, Ilysah born in 1962 and named after Elijah Muhammad, Gamilah Lumumba, born in 1964 and named after Patrice Lumumba, and twins Malikah and Malaak, born in 1965 after their father’s assassination and named for him.
During this time President Kennedy was assassinated and Malcolm X, the top minister in the nation of Islam, made a comment that suggested that this was white justice coming back on it’s greatest leader. Elijah Muhammad, silenced Minster Malcolm. Malcolm took this time to make his pilgrimage to Mecca, something that is required of all Muslims, if they are financially able to do so. During this trip, Malcolm came across white Muslims, and therefore could not be the devils that Elijah Muhammad had painted all men to be. It was the turning point in Malcolm’s life. Having already found that Elijah Muhammad was bedding every pretty young Muslim women and fathering children and not supporting the children or their mothers. Upon returning to the United States after his pilgrimage on 8, March 1964, Malcolm X announced that he was leaving the Nation of Islam and that he and Betty were becoming Sunni Muslims. Malcolm then changed his name to El Hajj Malik Shabazz.
Eleven months later, on 21, February 1965 in Audubon Ballroom Malcolm began to speak, a commotion broke out in the audience and as Malcolm’s bodyguards moved to break up the commotion, a man came forward to shoot Malcolm with a sawed off shotgun and other members, shot Malcolm with pistols, 16 times. On man was caught an savagely beaten. Betty, who was sitting in the from row had pushed her children under her and used her body to shield them. Once the shooting stopped he tried to revive her beloved to no avail. At the hospital, a doctor cam out and states “The man you know as Malcolm X, is no more.”
Betty had difficulty sleeping for weeks after Malcolm X’s assassination. She suffered from nightmares in which she relived the death of her husband. She also worried about how she would support herself and her family. The publication of The Autobiography Of Malcolm X helped as she received half of the royalties. (Alex Hailey received the other half) After Haley published “Roots,” he signed over a past and future royalties to Shabazz. The years would not be kind to Shabazz family. From the bitterness Betty harbored against the Nation Of Islam (all men tried and convicted for Malcolm’s murder were members of the nation of Islam) to one of her daughters trying to arrange the assassination of Louis Farrakhan after it appeared that Farrakhan was boasting: “Was Malcolm your traitor or ours? And if we dealt with him like a nation deals with a traitor, what the hell business is it of yours? A nation has to be able to deal with traitors and cutthroats and turncoats.”
While her daughter dealt with her legal issues, Betty Shabazz took in her grandson Malcolm. He set the house on fire, and Betty Shabazz was burned over 80% of her body. Forever the fighter, she hung on for 3 weeks, through excruciating skin grafts, and surgeries. Shabazz died of her injuries on June 23, 1997. Malcolm Shabazz, a minor, was sentenced to 18 months for manslaughter and arson.
The legacy she left behind was of a strong woman, stepping out of the shadows from he larger than life husband and still tried to raise of the black race. Malcolm preceded Martin in death as did Betty preceded Coretta, but their connection didn’t end there. Coretta was forever a friend to Betty Shabazz both who made their life’s work to end apartheid in S. Africa. Their courage and strength would undoubtedly influence Mrs. Winnie Mandela. Winnie would need every once of their support and strength.
Photo Cred: USA Today, Official Site Of Malcom X
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TK’s Bio: Terrence Kyrell Hodge I was born 9/13/79, in what was then W. Berlin Germany, to Qualise and Lieutenant Tyrone Hodge of the United States Marine Corps. He lived inLondon England and graduated from the University of Michigan Ann Arbor in 2000 with BA in English and Political Science. Terrence writes about any and everything. Terrence is planning a series of novels that are works of “faction” part factual (nonfiction) and partly fictional. He plans to bring a dual vision of American and European observation and opinions to PMA. He will bring blunt honesty with a sense of comedy. He says “I will write wherever I’m needed as I am NOT a one trick pony.