Often, when we talk about the history of Islam in America, we focus on the great men and their big ideas. This month, in looking at the BlackLivesMatter Movement through the life and legacy of Malcolm X, I thought of the many women who were also part of our nation’s freedom struggle. Just as we remember Malcolm, we should acknowledge Ella Collins, the half-sister of Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz, his wife, and Malcolm X’s six daughters—all these women both pioneered the establishment of Islam in America and carried the burden of maintaining Malcolm X’s legacy. If we are to the honor the man, we should honor the women who stood beside him.
While few of us recognize Ella Collins as a seminal figure in American Muslim history, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center pays homage to her civil rights legacy with the Ella Collin’s Institute (ECI). The half-sister of Malcolm X, she raised young Malcolm after his father was murdered and mother suffered a nervous breakdown. She continued to shape his character and world view even as he grew into a man, advising her younger brother to embrace orthodox Islam and make the pilgrimage to Mecca (in fact, it was Collins who paid for his Hajj, a life-altering journey that led to Malcolm X’s ousting from the Nation of Islam). Despite her pivotal role in her half-brother’s life, Spike Lee did not bother to even mention Collins in his film biopic of Malcolm X. Aside from her influence on Malcolm X’s spiritual evolution, she was a tireless civil rights activist in her own right. After Malcolm X’s assassination, Collins maintained the Organization for Afro American Unity. To the end, she was a formidable player in the civil rights movement and in institution building in the Black American Muslim community.
After Ella Collins, Betty Shabazz (1934-1997) was the next woman to come into Malcolm X’s life and change its trajectory. After attending several Nation of Islam meetings and listening to Malcolm X preach, she joined the faith in 1956. Following a two-year courtship, the two married in 1958. Shabazz remained her husband’s confidant and advisor for nine years until in 1965, while Shabazz was pregnant with twins, Malcolm X was assassinated. It is interesting to note that at the time the Sunni Muslim community in America failed to support his burial or his widow, yet today we find a sense of rootedness in Malcolm X’s legacy. With little time to grieve, Shabazz set about raising her six daughters alone. Ruby Dee and Juanita Poitier (the wife of Sidney Poitier) raised funds to provide the widow a home and the family used the royalties from the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” to support themselves. Shabazz returned to school and eventually earned a doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts in 1975. She became a college administrator and public speaker, often defending her husband’s legacy and discussing topics such as civil rights and racial tolerance. Not unlike her husband, her life also ended tragically, when she succumbed to her burn injuries from a fire her grandson ignited.
Although she was wife of one of the most influential thought leaders in the civil rights movement, Betty Shabazz’s life history also provides a nuanced narrative of Black American life. She was a middle class, college educated Black woman who faced racism. Shabazz negotiated gendered norms in the Nation of Islam, which required wives to obey husbands. She recounted a story of their family talks:
They began at first with Malcolm telling me what he expected of a wife. But the first time I told him what I expected of him as a husband it came as a shock. After dinner one night he said, “Boy, Betty, something you said hit me like a ton of bricks. Here I’ve been going along having our little workshops with me doing all the talking and you doing all the listening.” He concluded our marriage should be a mutual exchange.
Editor’s note: Margari Hill is Programming Director of Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative and Assistant Editor at AltMuslimah. A longer version of her article appeared on AltMuslimah here. Her views are her own.