Early years
Betty Dean Sanders was born on May 28, 1934, to Ollie May Sanders and Shelman Sandlin. Sandlin was 21 years old and Ollie May Sanders was a teenager. Throughout her life, Betty Sanders maintained that she had been born in Detroit, Michigan, but early records—such as her high-school and college transcripts—show Pinehurst, Georgia, as her place of birth. Neither Georgia nor Michigan can locate her birth certificate.
By most accounts, Ollie May Sanders neglected or abused Betty Sanders, whom she was raising in Detroit. When Betty was about 11 years old, she was taken in by Lorenzo and Helen Malloy, a prominent businessman and his wife. Helen Malloy was a founding member of the Housewives League of Detroit, a group of African-American women who organized campaigns to support black-owned businesses and boycott stores that refused to hire black employees.
 Young adult years
After high school, Sanders left her foster parents' comfortable home in Detroit to study at the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) , a historically black college in Alabama. It was in Alabama that she first encountered racism. Sanders did not understand the causes for the racial issues, and her parents refused to acknowledge these issues. In an autobiographical essay she wrote in 1992, Betty Shabazz said her parents thought the problems were her fault.
To escape Southern racism, Sanders moved to New York City, where she enrolled as a nursing student at the Brooklyn State Hospital School of Nursing. While she was in nursing school, a friend of hers invited Sanders to hear Elijah MuhammadMalcolm X from the Nation of Islam speak at a Muslim temple in Harlem. According to the 1992 essay, Sanders' initial reaction to the Muslim meeting was that it was "no big deal". and
But then, 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.... Well, he got to the podium and I sat up straight. I was impressed with him.
After the meeting, Sanders and Malcolm X discussed the racism she encountered in Alabama, and she began to understand its causes, pervasiveness, and effects. Soon, Betty was attending all of Malcolm X's lectures. By the time she graduated from nursing school in 1958, Sanders had become a member of the Nation of Islam. Like many members of the Nation of Islam, she changed her surname to "X", which represented the African family name she could never know.
 Marriage and family
On January 14, 1958, Betty X married Malcolm X in Lansing, Michigan. Although they had never discussed the subject, Betty suspected that Malcolm was interested in marriage. One day, he called and asked her to marry him.
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 Kublai Khan; Ilyasah, born in 1962 and named after Elijah Muhammad; Gamilah Lumumba, born in 1964 and named after Patrice Lumumba; and twins, Malaak and Malikah, born in 1965 after their father's assassination and named for him.
 Leaving the Nation of Islam
 Assassination of Malcolm X
On February 21, 1965, in Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom, Malcolm X began to speak to a meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity when a disturbance broke out in the crowd of 400. As Malcolm X and his bodyguards moved to quiet the disturbance, a man rushed forward and shot Malcolm in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun. Two other men charged the stage and fired handguns, hitting him 16 times.
Shabazz was in the audience near the stage with her daughters. When she heard the gunfire, she grabbed the children and pushed them to the floor beneath the bench, where she shielded them with her body. When the shooting stopped, Shabazz ran toward her husband and tried to perform CPR. Police officers and Malcolm X's associates carried him to a stretcher and brought him to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Angry onlookers caught and beat one of the assassins, who was arrested on the scene. Eyewitnesses identified two more suspects. All three men, who were members of the Nation of Islam, were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
After the assassination of Malcolm X, actor and activist Ruby Dee and Juanita Poitier (wife of Sidney Poitier) established the Committee of Concerned Mothers to raise funds to buy a house and pay educational expenses for the Shabazz family. They bought a large home in Mount Vernon, New York. In her book, Growing Up X, Ilyasah Shabazz wrote that Betty Shabazz worked very hard to ensure that her daughters were well provided for. They led sheltered, comfortable, upper class lives, complete with the luxury of housekeepers, chauffeured cars, exclusive social clubs, and expensive predominantly white private schools, private tutors and summer camps.
 Pilgrimage to Mecca
After her husband's assassination, Shabazz decided to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. In a 1992 autobiographical essay, Shabazz wrote:
I really don't know where I'd be today if I had not gone to Mecca to make Hajj shortly after Malcolm was assassinated. And that is what helped put me back on track. I remembered one of the things Malcolm always said to me is, "Don't be bitter. Remember Lot's wife when they kill me, and they surely will. You have to use all of your energy to do what it is you have to do."
 Advanced education
After she completed her pilgrimage, Shabazz—who was already trained as a nurse—enrolled in Jersey City State College, where she earned a M.A. in public health education in 1970. In 1975, she received a Ph.D. in education administration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Shabazz was a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
 Social work
In 1976, Shabazz worked at New York's Medgar Evers College as an assistant professor. She taught health sciences and then became head of public relations at Medgar Evers College. She traveled widely, speaking on topics such as civil rightsWestchester County, New York. and racial tolerance. She became a great advocate for the goal of self-determination for African Americans. She also served on many boards, including the African-American Foundation, the Women's Service League and the Day Care Council of
 Public reconciliation with Farrakhan
In 1994, Shabazz spoke out for the first time against the Nation of Islam and linked its current leader, Louis Farrakhan, to Malcolm X's assassination. Farrakhan denied the allegations. He blamed the turbulent and racially hostile atmosphere of the 1960s as the root causes for Malcolm's death.
In January 1995, Betty and Malcolm X's daughter Qubilah Shabazz were charged in Minneapolis with trying to hire an assassin to murder Farrakhan in retaliation for the murder of her father. The assassin turned out to be a government informant. Farrakhan surprised everyone by defending Qubilah. He claimed that she had been manipulated by government agents who wanted to breed ill feelings within the Nation of Islam and throughout the African American community. In May 1995, Shabazz eventually reconciled with Farrakhan, shaking his hand on the stage of Harlem's Apollo Theater at a fundraiser for her daughter's defense. The fundraiser had been arranged by Farrakhan to help pay for Qubilah's legal fees. Betty Shabazz spoke at Farrakhan's Million Man March in October 1995.
Qubilah was not imprisoned for her plot to assassinate Farrakhan. However, she was required to undergo psychological counseling and treatment for drug and alcohol abuse for a two-year period. During this period, Qubilah's 12-year-old son, Malcolm, was sent to live with Shabazz at her apartment in Yonkers, New York.
On June 1, 1997, Shabazz's grandson, Malcolm, set fire to her apartment. Shabazz suffered burns over 80 percent of her body and remained in intensive care for three weeks at the Jacobi Medical Center in The Bronx, New York. She underwent five skin-replacement operations as doctors struggled to replace damaged skin and save her life. Shabazz died of her injuries on June 23, 1997.
At the time of her death, Shabazz headed the Office of Institutional Advancement and Public Relations at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn (part of the City University of New York).
More than 2,000 mourners attended a memorial service for Shabazz at New York's Riverside Church. Many prominent leaders were present, including civil rights activists Coretta Scott King and Myrlie Evers-Williams, poet Maya Angelou, actor-activists Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, New York Governor George Pataki, and four New York City mayors—Abraham Beame, Ed Koch, David Dinkins, and Rudy Giuliani. U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman delivered a tribute from PresidentBill Clinton. In a statement released after Shabazz's death, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said, "She never stopped giving and she never became cynical. She leaves today the legacy of one who epitomized hope and healing."
Shabazz's funeral service was held at the Islamic Cultural Center in New York City. Her public viewing was at the Unity Funeral Home in Harlem, the same place where Malcolm X's viewing took place 32 years earlier. Shabazz was buried next to her husband, Malcolm X, at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
There is a large mosque in Harlem named after Shabazz.