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Betty Shabazz, the widow of el-Hajj Mailk el-Shabazz, better known as slain civil rights leader Malcolm X, would have been 81 today. Despite losing her husband in such a violent way and facing raising six daughters alone, Shabazz found the will to achieve.

Born Betty Dean Sanders in 1934, Shabazz married Malcolm during his rise in the Nation of Islam while in nursing school in New York. The pair married in 1958 and had six daughters together. In 1964, the family left the Nation Of Islam to join the Sunni Muslim faith and Malcolm evolved from his Black nationalist message to a more humanist tone.

As the family’s sole provider, her husband’s assassination rocked the family to its core and left Shabazz scrambling to find ways to support her girls. Graciously, author Alex Haley signed over royalties he earned from The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Actress and activist Ruby Dee and Juanita Poitier, wife of actor Sidney Poitier, organized a fundraiser and created the Committee of Concerned Mothers organization. By raising $17,000 through a pair of concerts, the group assisted Shabazz in buying a home in Mouth Vernon and covered educational expenses for her daughters.

Shabazz reportedly sold the rights of the autobiography to filmmaker Marvin Worth and authorized the publication of her husband’s speeches to bring in more income. Shabazz became a fixture in the Mt. Vernon community and was a sought-after guest speaker.

In 1969, Shabazz graduated Jersey City State College, completing her degree in education. She went on to earn her master’s degree in education as well. In 1972, Shabazz enrolled at the University of Massachusetts for her doctorate in higher education administration.

For three years, Shabazz drove from New York to Amherst and stayed in the city from Monday through Wednesday night each week. It was also during this period that Shabazz joined the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

Shabazz joined the teaching faculty of New York’s Medgar Evers College, serving as a booster and fundraiser for the institution. She became the Director of Institutional Advancement and Public Affairs in 1984, and held that position until her unfortunate death in 1997, when she succumbed to injuries in a fire set by her 12-year-old grandson, Malcolm.

Malcolm, who himself died prematurely in Mexico at the age of 28, served 18 months for the arson, but maintained that he didn’t intentionally want to hurt his grandmother.

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