This Day in Black History: June 23, 1997

Educator and activist Betty Shabazz dies from injuries suffered in a fire set by her grandson.

Posted: 06/23/2014 12:00 AM EDT

Betty Shabazz, the widow of civil rights leader Malcolm X and activist in her own right, died on June 23, 1997, as the result of a fire set by her 12-year-old grandson in her Yonkers, New York, home. Malcolm, son of the couple's daughter Qubilah Shabazz, pleaded guilty to juvenile charges of manslaughter and arson on July 10.

"I didn’t mean for my grandmother to get hurt. I wasn’t thinking anything like that would happen. [I thought] she would go to the fire escape [but] she walked through the fire to get to me. I didn’t think she would walk through a fire for me," he said in an interview with Newsone.

Shabazz was born Betty Sanders on May 28, 1936, in Detroit, Michigan, to an unwed, teenage mother, but was adopted at age 11 and enjoyed a middle-class upbringing. Shabazz initially attended Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, but unable to adjust to the racist environment that was the norm in the South, she moved to New York City to study nursing at Brooklyn State Hospital.

She met her future husband Malcolm X at a mosque in 1956, joined the Nation of Islam while a student and married soon after graduation in 1958. On Feb. 21, 1965, while pregnant with twin girls, she and the couple's first four daughters witnessed Malcom X's assassination while he was speaking at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.

Although she is best known as the widow of the famous Muslim and civil rights leader and for her friendships with Myrlie Evers-Williams and Coretta Scott King, she became a leader in her own right and worked for many years at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn.

Shabazz was 61 when she died after suffering extensive burns on 80 percent of her body from the fire set by her troubled grandson.

"Millions of people look to her for some kind of understanding of the history of the struggle," said activist and poet Amiri Baraka upon Shabazz's death.

Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.

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