The Never-Ending Tragedy of Malcolm X

In the history in New York, it will be recorded as one of our greatest tragedies

By Gabe Pressman
|  Wednesday, Feb 9, 2011  |  Updated 7:15 PM EDT
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The Never-Ending Tragedy of Malcolm X

Library of Congress

Death of a Prophet is a comprehensive look at Malcolm X's life and work in his final years.

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In the history in New York, it will be recorded as one of our greatest tragedies.

What happened to Malcolm X and his loved ones is a horrible story. Decade after decade, this family has been afflicted with one awful episode after another. And the tragedy has not ended. Even today a quarrel among his heirs, his daughters, has erupted and, although Malcolm died 46 years ago, his presence in New York is still deeply felt.

The latest chapter is unfolding in Surrogate’s Court in Westchester, where three of Malcolm X’s six daughters are feuding over his legacy, according to The New York Times. Actually the lawsuit is over the estate of their mother, Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz.

One of the daughters, Malikah Shabazz, accuses her two sisters, Ilyasah and Malaak Shabazz, and their former lawyer, the Times says, "of spending estate money on themselves while permitting property and other estate assets to languish and a tax bill to skyrocket."

There have been charges of irresponsibility, mental incapacity and fiscal mismanagement of an estate estimated at about $1.4 million, according to the Times. Also in the legacy are unpublished works by Malcolm X and Dr. Shabazz. Their value is unknown.

I interviewed Malcolm X and his widow, Betty Shabazz. I can imagine that even they might find it hard to believe that their sad story would take this turn nearly five decades after his death. But sadness was an enduring component of their lives.

I first encountered Malcolm X on the sidewalks of Harlem when, as a young man, he told me he was ready to fight the "white devils" who oppressed his people. After his trip to Mecca he changed his views dramatically and, when I last saw him, his lawyer, Percy Sutton, was showing him around the Assembly Chamber in Albany. Malcolm told me jokingly that he was "trying to see how the other half lives."

In a later interview he told me he knew that some militant Black Muslims wanted him dead.

Years after he was assassinated on a Sunday afternoon in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem as his young daughters watched, the mother, Betty Shabazz, spoke to me in a Channel 4 interview show, News Forum. She told me she believed Louis Farrakhan, minister of the Nation of Islam, was involved in the assassination. "Nobody kept it a secret. It was a badge of honor. Everybody talked about it."

The tragedy continued. In 1995, Malcolm X’s daughter, Qubilah Bahiyah Shabazz, was arrested in Minneapolis on federal charges of trying to hire a hit man to kill Farakhan. I covered the story. Her mother told us the daughter was framed.

In 1997, Percy Sutton represented Betty Shabazz’s grandson, Malcolm, when the 12-year-old boy was accused of setting the fire in her apartment that caused her death. The boy was placed in a juvenile detention center.

This seemingly never-ending tragedy encompasses the streets of Harlem, the pilgrimage of an idealist to Mecca, the horrible civil war within the ranks of the Nation of Islam in America, the tragedy of the assassination of a man who spoke to the tragedy and aspirations of black America and sought to lead his people to new heights of achievement -- and the bitter lives of his survivors, including his widow and now his children.

I remember the handsome man I met in the streets of Harlem. I remember his sometimes frightening rhetoric, which contrasted with his warm personality. And I remember the widow who fought to bring up her six daughters well. She succeeded but then died at the hands of her mentally disturbed grandson, Malcolm.

The tragedy of Malcolm X and his family is engraved in the heart of New York. Here was a man who fought for what he believed was right -- a man whose voice and words thrilled many people. He was brought down by ambitious, unscrupulous men who recoiled at his message. And, in destroying him, they wrecked his family, his wife, his daughters, his grandson. And they killed an important voice in the civil rights movement who had hardly been heard.

What a pity that this story had to unfold this way. Paraphrasing what someone said sadly about the assassination of Jack Kennedy: Malcolm, we hardly knew ye!

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