Interviewer: Carroll Blue
Production Team: A
Interview Date: October 12, 1988
Camera Rolls: 1003-1006
Sound Rolls: 101-102
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Betty Shabazz, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 12, 1988, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
Dr. Shabazz what should young Black people know about Malcolm that we don't already know? What is his legacy?
What should young people know about Malcolm. I, I think, ah, one of the most important things in the view of contemporary society, they should ah, know about his internal strength and discipline. And, ah, understand that, ah, that a lot of people can climb the mountains and deal with people on a very affluent level, but don't understand what is happening in the valleys. And that if they are going to be future leaders, that people are going to have to understand the diversity, ah, of people, ah, ethnicity, political, religious, you know. And, ah, if you really look at our society today, you find the Baptists preaching to the Baptists, and the Methodists preaching to the Methodists, and the Buddhists to the Buddhists, and the Muslims to the Muslims. I think religion will have to cross those various lines, and deal with people on an ecumenical basis or level, and I think that people will have to, ah, put humanity above the power of politics. Ah, we need to understand the struggles, the, the whole situation of, of, of, ah, of struggle, as I've said before, the challenges and the resources, that face people not just in America, not just next door, but all over the world. Have people in such conflict, ah, for power that they will level a country, ah, neighborhoods, ah, civilians, regardless, women and children, and old men and old women. For that power that we are going to have to come together as people and understand, ah, that whole humanitarian dilemma. And, and understand where, and the importance of power. So that I think Malcolm had conquered all of that, and was moving towards those extreme ends that have our country and the world, as a matter of fact, so divided today. That, ah, I think it would be important for young people to understand all of that, and know that the answers are here on Earth. The answers are within our grips, but if we don't have the internal fortitude, or internal strength or integrity. A loyalty to ourselves and other human beings that we might go to sleep and not wake up as a world people. And, ah, I think if, if young people understood that, and the fact that they have a responsibility to deal with themselves, and find answers to those challenges that confront us all. And, and I might say getting worse.
Stop right there.
When was the first time you saw Malcolm's speech, Malcolm X speak?
When was the first time I saw him speak? OK, because that was a newspaper he, he started a newspaper. Well, the first time I saw him speak I, I was a student, and hmm, and had gone to the mosque with a friend.
And what were your reactions?
Well, I thought that what he had to say was important and had a lot of validity, I had not been accustomed to his, his kind of phrasing, his kind of clarity, his kind of openness. I thought surely something was going to happen drastically, because, ah, I was, ah, reared, my, ah, my folks were Methodists, and, ah, we lived a very limited, kind of, ah, lifestyle. And, ah, it was church, and school, and work, and committee meetings, and that sort of thing. And, um, I could appreciate and follow his talking about the world, various places on Earth, but his openness, and his inclusion of, ah, that African Diaspora as part of all this, was ah, a bit new to me. Ah, enlightening, enjoyable, you know, like "Hey!, you know, I , I am in this picture after all. I'm not an appendage, I am not ah, a part of the begging class, the welfare class," not that I was reared to think that. But once you leave home, and you are exposed to the broader society, ah, you begin to think, that your very existence is, is perhaps not welcomed, you know. And so that, ah, it was a delightful meeting, and I enjoyed meeting him, obviously.
Now, what kinds of philosophies did he have in the Nation of Islam? Can you give me a story that illustrates, what, how you learned from him, here?
Well, at that particular time, ah, it was, ah, he was talking about togetherness, and he was talking about Elijah Muhammad, ah, who my parents knew in Detroit, Michigan, ah, the terms were not so favorable. But of course, ah, I just interpreted that as the lack of understanding of my parents. But, ah, he was involved in raising funds to take Elijah Muhammad's sons from their various jobs, non-professional jobs, to have them, work with the father. So that he spearheaded a drive that, ah, would provide enough money, for their salaries. And, ah, of course he, his whole philosophy was rooted in history, Malcolm was the son of a Baptist minister, and his father was a Garveyite. And of course you know, at that particular time, it was, ah, not the thing to do, to be a Garveyite. And so that, he would use to explain not only, ah, the religious sense, but a historical sense, of our people to explain the need for this or that. So that he explained in not only religious terms, but historical terms, of why it was necessary for Elijah Muhammad's sons to leave those menial jobs and work with the father. To be more helpful because the nation was growing. And I might add, that Malcolm was directly responsible for that growth. When my husband got out of prison, Elijah Muhammad had six mosques, and populated by older members, and even Elijah Muhammad said in Philadelphia, before my husband was expelled from the movement. That he was, he single-handedly was responsible for the growth, and at that particular time, that, ah, the Nation of Islam had mosques in every major city in the United States. So that he explained, ah, his explanation to me was, ah, new because usually people dealt with the Bible and kind of left it at that level, you know.
How was he different?
We're going to continue our discussion.
OK, what was different was that Malcolm not only dealt with the Christian Bible, which most, uh--
In keeping with, again talking about, ah, the teachings that you were learning from Malcolm, and how it was different.
Well, what was different was that Malcolm not only dealt with the Christian Bible, which most of us were familiar with, and, ah, most people in this country are familiar with, but he also dealt with the Koran and he also dealt from a historical perspective. And as, ah, a matter of fact, ah, it was, appeared in the New York Times through a minister who was named Henry at that particular time, I, I believe he died and I hope God have mercy on his soul, ah, and this interview, it said that Elijah Muhammad said that the, the Blackness that was brought in to the nation of Islam was brought in by Malcolm and it was never intended. But you have to understand that Malcolm's father was a Garveyite and he remembered that, and it could have been an ode to his father.
How was he different, the public man from the private man?
Well, I don't know if he was, ah, really different in the sense. Ah, I would say that he smiled a lot in private, he was very gentle and understanding yet firm with his children. Ah, I found him an excellent husband, ah, but I guess his long years in prison, and then getting into the religion he was extremely disciplined. And, ah, you know, sometime it was just no let up, you know just kind of all business--
Could you give me a story about that. You said he was "extremely"--
Well he was, he was extremely disciplined, I mean it was just, ah, it was just unbelievable, you know, he, ah, said five prayers a day without fail, he used to write me from various parts of the world. To say to me to please pray sometime, and, ah, I wrote him a letter back, you know, very quickly, and I said, "If you do your job I won't have to pray at all." Which was you know, probably what I should not have done, but I just thought I would do that, you know, but he was a very disciplined man. And, ah, he could read the average difficult book in 3 hours, 4 hours, ah, he just did a lot of things, just really a remarkable person.
After his expulsion, what changes did you notice in him? I--
Well, he beha- no, he behaved the same way, he was, ah, goal oriented. And, ah, he decided that this was the time for him, to, ah, travel, to do some research, to find out some answers for himself. He had at one particular time, been very disappointed, not only in the movement, but in the leadership. Ah, that a lot of things that he had heard even when he, ah, first entered the movement, ah, that, ah, there was a possibility that they were true. The reason that, ah, the leader was, ah, run from, ah, from Michigan. Ah, that various people showed him pictures, and, ah, and talked and cried, you know, about what had happened. So that he felt that, that, ah, the movement was a good movement, it was, the structure was good, that, ah, one needed to be disciplined and more caring about the people, and, but that he needed to do some research, so that he was invited, ah, to the summit conference, the first time, that, ah, a Black American had been so honored, ah, to come to the summit conference and represent Black people in America. And of course, he traveled throughout Africa, and, ah, the Middle East, and part of Asia. And made some startling discoveries. And of course, at that particular time there was a lot of things going on in this country, and one of them was the irritation in this country by decision makers, that he should not have been allowed to, to, travel that far, and, not knowing that he was going to meet the kind of people that he met. And so then they started, ah, gathering, ah, forces to anoint a leader that would supersede him. So there was of course in, ah, the American papers, that, ah, the- they had a poll, that said he was not a, a leader thought, ah, well of, and that other people were much more popular with the people. And then we got a call one day that said someone was going to get a grand prize, you know, and it was an attempt to, ah, set leadership, not only, not only against him, but, ah, above him. That what he was doing was not, ah, appreciated by his own people, and this, that and the other, so--
Stop for just one second
I don't, I don't really know if Malcolm's original agenda, ah, from the knee of his father ever changed, actually. Ah, he perhaps was able to discuss it, ah, ah, more openly and intellectually in the time that I met him. He said, freedom, by whatever means necessary to bring about a society were people of African descent were recognized and treated as human beings, regardless to where they lived, you know, as long as it was on Earth. And if, if you really understand that, and a lot of people defined it perhaps negatively, they talked about militancy. But it wasn't really militancy in a negative s- s- sense, it was the internal strength, the fact that I'm a human being. His, ah, whole, um, notion of changing the civil rights struggle to one of human rights. That if you changed it to a human rights struggle, you would have your civil rights, and that you would have more support. And of course, ah, when he came back from Africa, a lot of the leaders felt that, ah, his thrust was wrong, that he had no business in Africa, he had no business in the Middle East, he had no business in Asia seeking support. He should, ah, concentrate his time in Mississippi. And of course I think now, retrospectively, that his analysis was correct. Ah, that of human rights, and of course different nations are cited for human rights violations. Ah, but, ah, Black people are still abused, and ours is still, ah, in the realm of, ah, discrimination and civil rights, and it really needs to be taken to a higher level. So that I, I think his analysis was correct, I think that people or I should say, decision makers at that time, I'm sure that they recognized that there was a great deal of validity to what he was saying. And just wanted a little more time to get a lot of things in order. I can remember when, ah, they were really criticizing him severely for wanting to change it to a human rights struggle. Ah, that, ah, Arthur Goldberg, ah, threatened to take Russia to the World Court at that particular time for just the 3 million, ah, Jews in Russia, because they had, ah, human rights violations. And I thought it was remarkable, it was honorable, I mean that's, as a leader, that is really what he should have done for his people. And, ah, but I also felt that Malcolm was correct to take, uh to discuss the whole, ah, possibility of taking this country to the World Court, the U.N., where such items are discussed, for maltreatment the more than 22 million, at that particular time, ah, Black people. And of course he was demonic, and all the bad names that could be thought of. But, ah, I, I think that, ah, that he was correct.
Would you share with me a story of the family.
Well I don't know, if I really have any Malcolm X stories or not, I just know from reality, that, ah, he contributed, ah, personally to the, ah, ah, caring for 3 or 4 families, because he did not take the time really counsel the men in the family, they felt they couldn't work for White people because they were in a racist, and this, that and the other. And, ah, he said, he would say to me, every time of the week when I was going to get my allowance, along with the children's, ah, nursery money, and, ah, the food money, and he would say, ah, "As soon as I get time, I am going to counsel, you know, the brothers, and I'm going to get them all together, because, ah, ah, I know you would like to do more things, you know, like go shopping, right?" And, ah, somehow he never got around to it. And, ah, after his assassination, I could be walking down the street, and I would see one and they would cross on the other side of the street, you know. And, ah, I guess it must have been maybe about 5 years ago, I saw a brother, you know, who was one of them, who apologized for his lack of strength, and, ah, I said to him that money is not everything, you know, you can encourage people or be around people or whatever, but it was- but he needed at that point for someone to be around him. And I think of all the people that helped me in my own survival of will, that, ah, I often think of him and smile. I don't know if that's a Malcolm X story or not, but it's a part of history and it was something that was real.
In the last days of his life, when, again, was that change in him as he was moving around hurriedly--
Ah, well yes there was a change only in developing or ironing out the rough spots of his new methodology. Ah, that you know, number one, a lot of people wanted him to come to their country to help, to advise. I was in Europe, ah, on my way to Hajj and I met a man who said that we have been observing him for the last four years, and quite frankly, we were delighted when he was expelled from the movement, because the religion, ah, Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam was not considered as Orthodox Islam, and, ah, they wanted him to help them, in their country. But, ah, he felt that his responsibility was for Black people because most of the leaders somehow had disappointed Black people, and, ah, he wanted, at least, to see a directional gain. We have dealt in the relationship, you know, how visibility, how relationship, but not, we have not gained on the task level. And he was more interested in the task level, you know. You can like me, but you need to understand that I have certain rights as a human being. So that I think, his goal was to change the thinking and the attitude Just, just very simply, if you change the thinking and the attitude, you know, you're going to have a bloodless revolution, actually. So that, ah, the challenge still face us, all he did was hold up a mirror of what had been going on in this country, and, ah, people really could not take that. So that they said that he was the god of violence, you know, and he did not commit any violence in his lifetime other than his death. And he didn't commit his own death. So that, ah, I, I think about Malcolm sometimes when I see the young men on the corner, or the, all of our young brothers in prison. I'm, of course, there are women too, but- and the lack of grounding of our people, flighting to this or to that, without due course that this is mine, and I do wonder where are we going. And I sometimes observe people, not all of the leaders, but who are more willing to please others than themselves and their people. Please in terms of that internal stability, you know, that this is mine, that, that is necessary. So that, we need perhaps to relook[SIC] at our needs and assess where we're going, and choose people to be our leaders on those bases.
Well, his love of humanity, his willingness to work, the fact that our young people need to accept the responsibility, all young people, not just Black, and, but all young people need to accept the responsibility to do what is best, ah, to salvage civilization. We talk in terms of nuclear warfare, and we think in terms of drugs, and polluting the sea, and you know, everything is destruction, you know, surely people of good will can come together to salvage the world. I wonder now, though, with Malcolm gone, they don't have anyone to point to, and I, I look at all of the violence, and the discrimination, and all of the people whose- was against Malcolm, somehow they have not gotten together to get rid of, of all of the things that ail us. So that Malcolm is at peace, he did all of the things that he had to do, and, and, and should have done. I would not have had it any different, but I wonder about all of those people who are still involved in a high relationship type of leadership, you know, I wonder where they will lead us. And you look at the world, it is really in torment, and Malcolm's dead 25 years, so that he was totally correct in his assessment. And I think that people need to know that.
--I think you should ask me that, that question. Yes, because I'm not, ah--
That question I'm asking you, that strength and power, you know, could you share with us an incident that you observed?
Well, I wasn't married to him at, at the time that you are talking about the, the demonstration but I was close to it. And, ah, of course, ah, the police had wrongly abused one of the men who, ah, was considered a brother, ah, for no apparent reason other than mistaken identity, of which there was a settlement, ah, but, ah, everyone was, was just very frightened of, ah, that whole group of, ah, Black men who were later joined by some women, ah, and, ah, it was felt that Malcolm was.
It was felt that, ah, no Black man should have that kind of strength or power to, ah, dispatch, ah, Black men, ah, in that kind of demonstration. And, ah, of course it was, ah, I thought, really not the proper thing for people to say maybe, to think because what we want to do is to have people to have allegiance to themselves. You know everyone fights for the allegiance of Black people and, ah, if, if a, if, it appeared to me that if that because they had allegiance to Malcolm at that particular time that he was considered a threat. Ah,, and a lot of negative dialogue began to emanate that, ah, these Black men and women, ah, adhered to his instructions to go or to come, ah, everyone fights for the allegiance of the Black people, you know. But when Blacks have allegiance to Black, that seems to be still considered very dangerous, when it is the most natural there is. Of course, ah, there was no fear on their part either and, ah, that was one of the things that I found with my own parents, when I was going to a southern school and came home and began to talk about the discrimination and the, ah, difficulties that I had when I would go into town and my parents really could not deal with it because, and I understand and of course love them no less, ah, but, ah, they were afraid. And a lot of people do things because internally they've been bred on fear. Ah, fear that if they show allegiance to Blacks that something would happen, you see. And so my parents were very fearful and that was the one very striking thing about Malcolm, that, ah, he had no fear. And, ah, I am of course not as strong as he but, ah, I am very grateful that I had the conference experience to be around him for years and experience a Black man who was goal oriented and had a love for his people and made his contribution as he should and as we all should but without fear. He feared God and that was it.
How was this man able to move from the streets of Harlem to a University life in Oxford and be able to talk on all different levels to all different people?
Well, he was well read. He was, he was well read. He, he just was a prolific reader, ah, of the classics, you know, every day. He could, ah, deal with a difficult book in three or four hours. I mean his, and, and his analytical skills, self taught, but was very sharp and I can remember, ah, he would go through various skills at home, you know, and I couldn't remember who came, what time they came, you know, who said what, or whatever, you know. And he says, "Girl, when I was in prison, there was so much time that if a fly flew through a window, you would not say the fly flew through the window, you would say the fly flew through the lower right-hand quadrant and landed on its front legs." He was just, just very observant and very analytical.
Two other questions. The 1967 visit to Ramparts magazine, the Black Panthers escorted you to that magazine. Can you describe that incident and your feelings around it.
I had no feelings. You know I was really surprised that, ah, sometime later I read where someone said that I was really in fear, you know. I didn't even know what was happening, let alone, you know how could I be fearful? I just felt I was in the capable hands of these Black men all dressed up militaristically. I didn't know who they were. Or, I was invited there for a program and, ah, as, as a matter of fact I had gone to sleep on the plane and I, I woke up and we were landing and when I got outside there was all of these, ah, police I would imagine, lined on each side of the little area where you walk from the plane to the, ah, ah, terminal. And when I saw them, all standing there, you know, on both sides, shoulder to shoulder. I went, "Oh my God, someone was on the plane. And, ah, I didn't see them," you know. And I kind of criticized myself for going to sleep on the plane. And as I walked to the end of that walkway and made a, a, a slight right and saw the brothers standing out there dressed militaristically, I went, "OK, I understand." And, ah, there was a young man, ah, reciting part of the Constitution about carrying fire arms and, ah, I don't know it, it really did something to me. I just said, "Oh, wow, that's just really fantastic." And so then I got in a car and was swept away. And so that I certainly didn't have any fear. It was just an experience. And I did not know until afterwards what was happening. And we went to Ramparts magazine and, ah, then they said, "OK we must go now." And I got up and I left. And it was not until we got to the second place that I was told what had happened. And so we were all safe, so, you know. Plus, I was going back to New York anyway.
And in 1972 you went to the Gary Convention. Tell me what your thinking was and what your experience was.
I was very pleased that number one, that organizers had the sensibility, ah, correct sensibility to have the conference. I thought it was, ah, a very good thing. I still think it's a good thing when people come together and discuss their own agenda. It was brought out at the conference that people please, ah, vote in terms of, ah, self-interest, not in terms of people who had paved their way and that was a big joke. And, and I thought, "Oh, my goodness. You know. That, ah, you know, people would come to the conference not for their own self-interest, but Black people would come to the conference with the notion for someone else." I found that very, very strange. Ah,, I think that, ah, if you are a free people, and, ah, an adult and thinking about your own responsibility and you have the, the right of the vote, that you should vote whichever way you choose. So that I saw nothing wrong with the conference. There was some negative press, you know, a Black thing and of course, ah, it was kind of given the, ah, notion that if it was a Black thing it was not a good thing. You know, which I think is, is, is not such a good way to promote things. I thought it was healthy. If there are differences. If there are questions. Why not? You know. An open forum. Ah,, the Polish, ah, union leader, is, is supported with his differences. Why not any other ethnic group leader supported. So I thought it was very good and said so. Some people say, you know, "It failed." No. It didn't fail. Because people came together and crystallized their thinking. And probably if there was any failure it was that it didn't happen, ah, the next year and the next year and the next year.