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The daughters of Malcolm X and MLK, Jr. on inheriting a legacy

The full episode transcript for ENCORE: The Daughters of Malcolm and Martin (2021)


Into America

The Daughters of Malcolm and Martin (2021)

Trymaine Lee: Here at Into America, we love exploring the past to better understand what's happening today, digging into the different forces that led us to this moment. And one of my favorite ways to do that is to talk to the people who descended from the giants who shaped our history.

Julius Garvey: Well, I'm Julius Garvey. I'm the second son of Marcus Garvey.

Dean Schomburg: Arturo Schomburg was my grandfather. I am the son of his seventh son.

Michael Boulware Moore: I grew up just knowing about Robert Smalls and hearing stories. My grandmother was Robert’s granddaughter.

Lee: The son of Pan-Africanist leader, Marcus Garvey; the grandson of the legendary historian and archivist, Arturo Schomburg; and the great-great-grandson of Reconstruction era congressman, Robert Smalls. I've had the honor of speaking with each of these men on our show. Even when you're a child of Marcus Garvey, world-famous for his activism and push for black unity across the globe, he's still, in so many ways, just your dad. Dr. Julius Garvey, though, recalls the moment when he realized his father was something more.

Garvey: I was in school at Wolmer’s Boys’ School in Jamaica, and we had a cafeteria where we'd go for lunch. And the lady who was serving the lunch leaned over and said, “Oh, you know, your father was a great man.” So that's the first time somebody outside of my mother had said that, and it came to me and said, “Wow, my dad is a great man.”

Lee: Dean Schomburg was even older when he realized just how important his grandfather was in collecting and preserving the history of Black people.

Schomburg: The time that I really think that I was aware of Arturo Schomburg, and what that name meant and what it could mean to me, I was probably late teens.

Lee: So when that light bulb went off, was it pride? Like, what was going on in you when you realized like, “My grandfather is the Arturo Schomburg.”

Schomburg: There was pride, most of all, great, great joy to me to understand that. I wouldn't say it's a burdensome, but I felt like compelled to honor what's a legacy to me.

Lee: Today, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem remains one of the most extensive archives of the Black diaspora. Dr. Julius Garvey says his older brother, who was named after their famous father, probably got most of the pressure to continue his father's legacy of activism. But his mother never failed to remind them both where they came from.

Garvey: “You can't disgrace the Garvey name,” so there was that pressure, so to speak, in terms of being somebody of substance, if you will, and not giving in to the usual teenage young adult rascality. So that kept me on the straight and narrow path.

Lee: And being born into this kind of legacy can be a heavy burden to carry. Take South Carolinian Robert Smalls, who daringly escaped from slavery to freedom, then went on to aid the North in the Civil War. Smalls later became one of the most prominent Black politicians of Reconstruction. He served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But when Michael Boulware Moore thinks of his great-great-grandfather, his past doesn't weigh him down. It buoys him.

Moore: I think knowing about Robert Smalls, knowing that I came from someone who had really achieved great things, who helped to undergird my sense of identity and helped to counterbalance a lot of what society was thrown at me. When faced with something, I ask myself, I said, “Well, how would Robert Smalls respond in this kind of a situation? Or what would he do? Or maybe even more profoundly, if I've got even just a drop of the same blood that Robert Smalls had, then I've got to go for it.”

Lee: We inherit all sorts of things from our family. But when you are the daughter of one of the most famous men in the 20th century, what does your inheritance mean? And how do you carry on their activism in your own way?

Today, we're continuing our summer look-back at the ways family shapes and strengthens us by taking a look at what it means when your family is a legacy. We're revisiting my conversations with Ilyasah Shabazz, a daughter of Malcolm X; and Dr. Bernice King, a daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. This episode originally aired on April 1st, 2021.

Malcolm X and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. are often described as polar opposites.

Malcolm X: Today it's time to stop singing and start swinging. (CROWD CHEERING) You can’t sing up on freedom, but you can swing up on some freedom.

Martin Luther King Jr.: We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we will still love you.

Lee: Two ends of the struggle for Black liberation, whose iconic styles were as different as fire and water, but whose aims of Black freedom were undoubtedly two sides of the same coin.

In life, Malcolm and Martin met only one time. It was during congressional hearings over the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And there's this iconic photo of the two men hand in hand, smiles wide, a moment whose weight is almost too hard to wrap your arms around these titans of Black identity and civil rights, the sword and the shield, filling a moment in time together with every ounce of hope and frustration and commitment to the cause that both had been consumed by for much of their adult lives.

Both would be tragically cut down in the coming years at the height of the struggle. Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21st, 1965. Dr. King met the same fate on April 4th, 1968. In life, they were portrayed as rivals. But in death, their legacies are forever linked and so are their families. The children of these freedom fighters have themselves become kin, sharing a birthright that few others could ever understand.

Ilyasah Shabazz: Did you already talk to my dear sister Bernice?

Lee: No, we haven't. We haven't yet.

I. Shabazz: She's doing a lot of great things.

Lee: Ilyasah Shabazz, a daughter of Malcolm X; and Dr. Bernice King, a daughter of MLK, share an inheritance, a torch, a mission and a vision of a more just world, and the playbook to make it happen. It's a pleasure to speak with you.

I. Shabazz: Thank you. Lovely to speak with you, too. I can see you, I'm just trying to see which picture I want to show. I got one of my dad and then one of my mom, and my dad with my mother since you're talking about my dad.

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. As one generation’s fight for racial equality spills into the next, Ilyasah Shabazz and Bernice King join me to talk about their famous parents, the ongoing push for equality, and what it means to inherit a legacy.

Ilyasah Shabazz was there when her father was killed. It was 56 years ago, February 21st, 1965, at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. Malcolm X was just about to give a speech to The Organization of Afro-American Unity, the Pan-Africanist organization that he founded the year before. Shabazz was two years old, sitting there in the audience, with her three sisters and her mother, Betty Shabazz who was a few months pregnant with twins. It was the second time in a week that the family had come under attack.

I. Shabazz: On February 14th, which is supposed to be Valentine's Day and I say, quote-unquote, “Her husband and her were in bed sleeping. Her babies were in the nursery sleeping. And a fire bomb was thrown into the room where her baby slept, and her home was on fire. And you know, a week later, her husband invites her to the Audubon Ballroom, with her babies, and she's pregnant. And she witnesses her husband's brutal assassination.”

Betty Shabazz: I heard shots, and I saw people crawling on the floor.

Lee: Betty Shabazz recounted the assassination to news outlets later that day.

B. Shabazz: And so I got down, too. Then when I was looking out and I saw someone look in amazement to the front, I knew they had shot my husband. And my children were crying, you know, “What's going on? What's going on? Are they going to shoot us?”

Lee: You were just 2 years old when your father was assassinated. And your mother was just 29 years old, six girls to raise without their father. From what you understand of how your family moved forward after your dad was killed, what were those early years like for your mother who’s raising you girls?

I. Shabazz: Yes, it was challenging for her, but she didn't show it to us when we were growing up. My mother seemed invincible. And you know, I would imagine she just wanted to ensure that we had a strong foundation, that we felt safe and secure, again, in the absence of a father. And she grew up in the church, really steeped in the church. And her mother would say to her, “Betty, find the good and praise it.” And that was something that we grew up with. You know, it's focusing on the good instead of focusing on the bad.

Lee: But it's hard to imagine that that kind of violence and that trauma wouldn't have shaped how she raised you all in some way, whether it's hypervigilance, or whatever it was. Were there ways in which she, from what she witnessed and experience, shaped the way she raised you all?

I. Shabazz: Absolutely. She was overprotective, and she was very careful. She was very meticulous in everything that she did. And so, you know, I just take my hat off to her because she raised her six daughters with a whole lot of love. We would bring our friends to our house. If one of my friends asked me a question and I didn't have the answer to it, I would say, “Well, come on, let's go ask my mother,” you know, because I thought my mother knew everything, you know, was just so dynamic.

And she put us in the best schools, which was extremely expensive. And you know, it just says so much about making sure that our children have the opportunity to know that they're worthy of a quality education, and balancing that off with ensuring that we had an Islamic tutor, you know, an African tutor that would come and tell us stories to make sure that we were solid, young women.

Lee: Was there a moment when it dawned on you like, “My father is Malcolm X?”

I. Shabazz: Yes, it did. When I went to college, people were chasing me on campus, “Are you Malcolm X’s daughter?” I was like, “Oh my gosh, yes,” and trying to understand what that meant. I saw that people had these enormous expectations of who they thought I should be. And it was challenging. And I remember calling home to my eldest sister, Attallah, and asking her, “What am I supposed to do?” And she said, “You don't have to pass a test to be Malcolm X's daughter. You already are.”

Lee: What did you inherit from your father?

I. Shabazz: Well, my father was a man of love, a man of compassion. You know, he was an intellect. He read everything that you can imagine. He loved philosophy, poetry, history. And my mother made sure that in the absence of our father, that we were raised, first and foremost, to know that our father loved us and didn't leave us, but that we understood who our father was, his humanity. And so, hence, I was a person of great love, compassion. You know, I had a great appreciation for history, and I recognize injustice. And I often let myself to those challenges.

Lee: With a father, like Malcolm X, Shabazz could have easily felt overwhelmed by his legacy. But she told me, her mother always encouraged her activism.

I. Shabazz: For as long as I can remember, my mother said, “Ilyasah, just as one must drink water, one must give back.”

Lee: Dr. Betty Shabazz died tragically in 1997. But in the wake of her father and mother's deaths, Ilyasah Shabazz carved her own path, drawing inspiration from both parents. She gives talks all over the country about interfaith connection and the importance of education. She teaches at John Jay College in New York City. She's also written several books for young people about her parents. Shabazz’s primary mission is to invest in young people.

I. Shabazz: Young people are turning to Malcolm because they know that Malcolm spoke truth, and truth is timeless. And they know that he dedicated his life to finding solutions. And this generation is now willing and not fearful to demand change. They recognize that those in power have misused power. And the only way things are going to change is when they roll up their sleeves and do the work, and they are here ready to do the work.

Lee: Shabazz and her sisters opened the doors of the Shabazz Center in 2005, in the space that used to be the Audubon Ballroom. The center promotes the teachings of Betty Shabazz and Malcolm X, and serves as an educational space.

I. Shabazz: You know, we have this intergenerational dialogue where we can be supportive, and help nurture all the things that they're thinking and wanting to do. And then they can also inform us on how we can be most effective. And what's been helpful is to be able to write books for children, so that they understand who Malcolm really is, you know, who Malcolm really was. He made the ultimate sacrifice. And we continue to make sure that his legacy is as accurate as possible, simply for the benefit of future generations.

Lee: What are some of those differences in terms of perception, how people had a certain view of him that contradicted what the reality of him was? What were some of those contradictions?

I. Shabazz: Oh, my gosh, well, let's say one of them was hate. You know, another is violence. And you know, I say, “Are you kidding me?” You know, you forget what history holds. Let's look at the kidnapping of refined and industrious African people. Let's look at the police brutality against young, innocent children. And so, my father had a profound reaction to that. He dedicated his life to finding solutions.

Lee: Part of these misunderstandings about Malcolm X's legacy come from the long-standing effort to paint him and Dr. King as ideological opposites, sometimes even enemies.

I. Shabazz: You know, it's just this divisiveness and all these immoral tactics. We learned about Thomas Jefferson. We learned about Abraham Lincoln. We learned about the contributions that they made to our society. But when we learned about Black, indigenous people of color, it's always this divisiveness.

You know, you choose one over the other. You know, with W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, with Tupac and Biggie Smalls, you know, it was the same thing with Malcolm X and Dr. King, instead of recognizing, you know, these facts that they made significant sacrifices and enormous contributions to our society.

Lee: But despite this forced rivalry and the men's true disagreements, the family say the men actually had a mutual respect for each other. And in the years after Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, the families came together. Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz could understand each other's pain and grief like no one else in the world.

I. Shabazz: I knew that my mother and Dr. King's wife we're close. But Bernice, you know, we have just this really, I love her so much. And I would tell her every time I see her, “I only see her as a little girl.” And I always joke with her, I'm like, “We're going to be like 70,” and I am still going to see her as a young girl.

You know, I'm grateful again that our mothers were able to lean on one another. And you know, we called her Aunt Coretta. And you know, there's something that I value tremendously, you know, the relationship that she and my mother had.

Bernice King: My mother really was the bridge.

Lee: That's Dr. Bernice King, the youngest child of Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King.

B. King: She formed a very strong bond with Betty Shabazz and became very dear friends, sister friends.

Lee: After the break, more of her story and how she's carrying her father's legacy forward. Stick with us.


Lee: Dr. Bernice King says Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz leaned on each other in the years after their husbands were killed.

B. King: So they got to share those kinds of stories and spent some time together talking about, you know, their common struggles, their being widows and raising children in the context of their loved one being assassinated. And what comes with that?

My mother, she was very maternal, because she took all of those young ladies, those girls, and she would call them under her wings. And you know, she started making sure that they have whatever they need it. She was like a mama to them, so they became like my extended family of sisters.

Lee: That’s a beautiful blended family.

B. King: I know.

Lee: Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott, that's a family.

B. King: I know. It is.

Lee: Dr. King was 5 when her father was killed. Her memories are those of a child. And in many ways, that give us a much closer sense of Martin Luther King, Jr., the man.

B. King: I had my own kind of connection with him that none of the others had. All of us got placed on refrigerator and would jump off into his arms. And then I remember being at the dinner table, I remember before any grace being said, there were these long-stemmed green onions with a bulb on the end.

And he would pick them up and just chew on them like they were celery. And I don't know why I remember that. But you know how kids, you know, you see kids, they're kind of like looking at everything like they're expecting anything you do. I mean, it's like they're just watching and looking.

Lee: Yeah.

B. King: And that was me, you know, just curious. I don't know if I was curious as to what it was, you know,

Lee: You're chewing on his onions.

B. King: Yeah. But I do remember being at that dinner table quite a bit.

Lee: And I do wonder when you feel closest to your father, when you feel like you're actually tapping into his spirit.

B. King: You know, that's interesting. And this is going to probably sound weird to people, but I feel like I know my father. I feel like I was literally there when some of the things were happening in the movement, even though I wasn't born until 1963. And I think a large part of that is because I read his books a lot.

You know, I listen to his speeches and sermons. I meditate on them. I'm constantly, you know, teaching about or speaking about, and I feel so connected and close consistently. Like, he's just right here. And I think again, it has a large part to do with the way my mother, you know, kind of raised us in the household. She always invoked his presence.

Lee: Like Ilyasah Shabazz, Dr. King credits her mother, Coretta Scott King, with giving the guidance and space she needed to find her own way.

B. King: She really was the force in my life, that helped us to envision managing a legacy because she was the one who really was the architect of this entire legacy. And she often reminded us that, “You don't have to be me. You don't have to be your father. But whatever you do in this life, just always be your best self.”

Lee: Yeah. When did you know you had to get actively involved in the legacy and activism? Was there a moment where you said, “Should I or shouldn't I,” and you were drawn to or pushed into it? When was that moment?

B. King: You know, we grew up in all of this.

Lee: Right.

B. King: My mother building the King Center, I went through our first non-violence institute when I was about 9 or 11. And because she was so active, she modeled that activism for us. And I remember specifically then at Spelman College, and spending a lot of time on voter education and voter registration campaigns.

I remember galvanizing groups of students, with other students around apartheid, and having rallies around it, and then getting arrested, and then going into the South African Embassy with my mother to be arrested around apartheid. So it kind of just was a part of our life from the beginning. And I never saw it as optional, I just saw it as this comes with who I am.

Lee: Today, Dr. King is a minister like her father, and runs The King Center, which promotes her father's ethos of nonviolent activism. She makes it all sounds so easy, almost second nature. But Dr. King told me that for years, she struggled with her own sense of identity.

B. King: It's lonely because our dad is almost living. You know, he's not physically here, but he's living. It looms large. This legacy is humongous. I mean, when you come from parents that are still impacting the world 52 going on 53 years --

Lee: Right.

B. King: -- for my dad, after his assassination, you can feel overwhelmed and almost you could fall into depression, because everyone wants to do as well or exceed their parents. That's impossible.

Lee: Yeah.

B. King: I gave that up. Maybe two or three years ago, I say, “I better just like fall right in line and recognize.” And this is important for people to understand, when people ask me, “What is your legacy?” I used to struggle with that because I couldn't quite grasp what my true legacy is. And then it dawned on me literally, in the last few months since the pandemic, that I inherited legacy. So I don't have to carve out a legacy. My responsibility is to add to that legacy in terms of pushing it forward, because as you recognize the work that my father did was not complete.

Lee: Right.

B. King: One of the most fundamental things that he was trying to introduce and get people to ultimately embrace is non-violence as a way of living. And I see that as my, now, responsibility in his legacy. And so, now, I have a sense of peace, where I don't have to worry about, you know, this looming legacy of my parents, and whether I can go further, but I can just settle in and focus on this work of creating the beloved community, and really educating and equipping people to really embrace non-violence as that vehicle to get there. And so with that in mind, you know, it makes it more manageable now.

Lee: Wow.

B. King: And hearing my mother say, “Hey, just be your best self. Don't worry about looking at us.” And you don't want people throw it at me, you know, your parents, your parents, your parents. I have to bring it back down in my head and say, “No, I'm a part of a great legacy. And I have my part, and I'm doing my part. And I'm being my best self.”

Lee: What's interesting is you wrestled with that until recently.

B. King: Yes.

Lee: Wow.

B. King: Yes.

Lee: And what does it mean to share your father in a way? Because everyone wants to tap into his ideals, and tap into the greatness and what he stood for, but he is your father.

B. King: Right.

Lee: He's not my father.

B. King: Yeah.

Lee: How do you engage with that?

B. King: You know, I fight a lot of, a range of emotions. You know, I go through anger, I go through resentment, I go through frustration, I go through disappointment, you know, depending on what it is, and sadness. And I have these moments where, “That's my father. You know, stay away.”

Lee: Right.

B. King: You know, but those are my feelings. I try not to wear them on my shoulder. I try not to let them get in the way of progress. You know, I try not to even share them. I manage them within my own self by experiencing them, recognizing the truth of them. But then realizing that, look, if I had to replay everything and I had a choice, if I had another way where he would be here, not assassinated, and we would just grow up as a family, what would I do? I said, “I would have the same way.”

I would manage my loss. Yes, the things I think about quite often, I mean, when I have questions in ministry because I'm the only one in the ordained ministry, I wish I could have those conversations with him. I wish I could say, you know, “What were you meaning by this? Tell me more.” He has such foresight. But at the end of the day, I wouldn't have it any other way because I can't imagine a world without Martin Luther King Jr., the way he was.

Lee: You can find links to the full episodes with the descendants of Marcus Garvey, Robert Smalls and Arturo Schomburg in our show notes. If you haven't heard them before, we hope you'll give them a listen.

And some exciting news to share. Later this month, we're hitting the road for an HBCU tour to meet with young people and learn about the issues they're excited about this midterm election season. You get to join us as we visit Texas Southern University, Morehouse College, Jackson State University, FAMU and NC Central, diving into topics like education and the environment through a series of special podcast episodes and campus town halls. Keep an eye on and our social pages using the handle @intoamericapod to learn more. See you on the road.

This episode of Into America was produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner and Preeti Varathan. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Aisha Turner. I'm Trymaine Lee, and we'll see you next Thursday.