The Daughters of Malcolm and Martin
Trymaine Lee: 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. (CHEERING) You can't sing up on freedom, but you can swing up on some freedom.
Dr. 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 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.
Dr. Bernice King: Thank you, pleasure to speak with you too. I can see you, I'm just trying to see which picture I wanna show. I've got one of my dad and I've got one of my mom. I'm gonna do it with my mother, since y'all talkin' about my daddy. (LAUGH)
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 firebomb was thrown into the room where her babies slept, and her home was afire. And, you know, a week later, her husband invites her to the Audubon Ballroom, with her babies, and she's pregnant, and she went and sees her husband's brutal assassination.
Dr. 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 gonna shoot us?"
Lee: You were just two 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, just 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 our 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 y'all some way, whether it's hypervigilance or whatever it was. Were there ways in which she, from what she witnessed and experienced, shaped the way she raised y'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 Malcolm X?"
I. Shabazz: Yeah. (LAUGHTER) Yes, it did. When I went to college, people were chasing me (LAUGHTER) on campus.
Lee: That's great. Wow.
I. Shabazz: "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 recognized injustice. And I often lent myself to those challenges.
Lee: With a father like Malcolm X, Shabazz could've 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: So certainly, you know, in the idea of inheritance, you inherit this kinda beautiful legacy, and the love from your mother and father of our people, of our community, and the fight for justice and equality and all those things. But is there also a burden connected with the inheritance?
I. Shabazz: No. You know, because it's the life that I've known, right? And the only burden is just, you know, this enormous amount of empathy and compassion. There are so many young people who were politicized this summer. And we see that this generation is awake, and they are saying, "We are not backing down."
And so whatever it is that we smart, forward-thinking adults can do to help usher this generation along I think is extremely important. I wouldn't see that as a burden, I would see it as, you know, a great opportunity. And this is some of the things that we do at the Shabazz Center.
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 supported 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, you know, so that they understand who Malcolm really is, you know, who Malcolm really was. He made the ultimate sacrifice. And, you know, 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 longstanding effort to paint him and Dr. King as ideological opposites, sometimes even enemies.
I. Shabazz: You know, it's just this divisiveness, and all of these moral tactics. We learn about Thomas Jefferson. We learn about Abraham Lincoln. We learn about the contributions that they made to our society. But when we learn 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'd made significant sacrifices, and enormous contributions to our society.
Lee: But despite this forced rivalry, and the mens' true disagreements, their families 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 were 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 just, I only see her as a little girl. And I always joke with her, I'm like, (LAUGH) "We're gonna be, like, 70,"(LAUGHTER) 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.
I. Shabazz: And, you know, there's something that I value tremendously, you know, the relationship that she and my mother had.
B. 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 kinda stories and spent some time together talking about, you know, their common struggles, you know, being widows and raising children in the context of their loved one being assassinated, and what comes with that.
But my mother was like, she was very maternal, because she took all of those young ladies, those girls as she would call them, under her wings. And, you know, she started making sure that they had whatever they needed. She was like a mama to them. So they became like my extended family of sisters.
Lee: That's a beautiful blended family. (LAUGHTER)
B. King: I know, I know.
Lee: Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott, that's a family.
B. King: I know. It is.
Lee: Dr. King was five when her father was killed. Her memories are those of a child, and in many ways, they 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 the 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. (LAUGH) I don't know why I remember that, but you know how kids, you know, when 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.
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. (LAUGH)
Lee: Right, he was chewing on his onions.
B. King: But 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 gonna 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, speaking about. And I just, I feel so connected and closet 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 involved, actively involved in the legacy and activism? Was there a moment where you said, "Should I? Shouldn't I?" And you were drawn to or pushed into it? When was that moment?
B. King: You know, we grew up, you know, in all of this. My mother building the King Center, I went through our first nonviolence institute when I was about 11. And because she was so active, she modeled that activism for us. And I remember specifically being in 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 to the South African embassy with my mother to be arrested around apartheid. So it kinda 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 sound 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. His legacy is humongous. I mean, when you come from parents that are still impacting the world 52, going on 53 years from 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. You know, I gave that up maybe two or three years ago, I said, "Oh, 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 one thing my father did was not complete. One of the most fundamental things that he was trying to introduce and get people to ultimately embrace is nonviolence as a way of living.
And I see that as my now responsibility in this legacy. And so now I have a sense of peace, where I don't have to worry about, (LAUGH) you know, this looming legacy of my parents and whether I can go further or not. I can just settle in and focus on this work of creating the beloved community and really educating and equipping people to really embrace nonviolence as that vehicle to get there.
And so with that in mind, you know, it makes it more manageable now. And hearing my mother say, "Hey, just be your best self. Don't worry about looking at us." And even when people throw it at me, you know, "Your parents, your parents, your parents," I have to bring it back down (LAUGH) 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, you said you wrestled with that until recently.
B. King: Yes.
B. King: Yes.
Lee: 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. (LAUGH) How do you engage with that?
B. King: You know, I fight a lot, 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. (LAUGH)
Lee: Right, 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 and recognizing the truth of them.
But then realizing that look, if I had to replay everything and I had a choice, 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 it the same way. I would manage my loss. Yes, there are things I think about quite often.
I mean, you know, 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 had 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: Every year on Martin Luther King Day, Dr. Bernice King preaches from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church that her father led. She said this year she had an epiphany.
B. King: We have an open door, I believe, window of time. And I said in January, from the pulpit of Ebenezer, I quoted my father. And as I was preparing for it, the holy spirit said, "Emphasize. This may be our last chance." And it was when he talked about the chaos or community, this may be our last chance to choose between chaos or community.
Which means that we have to find a way to collect our energies in a positive way, to turn our society towards really creating this beloved community where there is justice and equity, and there is a sharing of resources and opportunities.
But if we don't, you know, make that shift, I don't know what's gonna happen. And it's gonna require consistency, persistency, and not thinking for granted because our person is in the White House, 'cause we do that a lot. "Well, our person won. We can kinda lay back."
Lee: Yeah, (LAUGH) right.
B. King: The pressure has to continue to be applied. We all have to have hands on deck and contribute and make sure the right legislation is not just passed, 'cause that's another thing that we do well. We fight hard to get people to vote, but we don't talk about voter education and what you do in between the time.
We fight hard to get laws passed, but then laws just linger, and there's no superintending of those laws to make sure they carry out the outcomes that we expect from them. So that's the kind of work that we have to really focus our energies on now. We should never let what happened to the Voting Rights Act ever happen again. Most of us found out about it when it was too late.
Lee: I asked Ilyasah Shabazz about this idea, that we have to keep pushing, that it's our collective responsibility to make a better future. I think a lot of what I took from your father's teachings was that, you know, we can't rely on or wait for white people to do anything for us, and we have to stand up, right? Do you believe that we can find what we're looking for here in this country?
I. Shabazz: Well, we have to, right? And while we must wrestle with the grief and despair of what has been, right, that we can hold on to the joy that comes from generative possibility. Black folks are more than equipped to continue building dynamic, forward thinking, and radical spaces rooted in our collective flourishing.
People can go to the Shabazz Center. They can go to the King Center. You know, all of these places that are dedicated to power, possibility, and sovereignty. I am so grateful, and Bernice and I talk about that a lot. We are so grateful that our mothers had, you know, that solid trust and sisterhood in one another. And I'm grateful, you know, for Malcolm and the work that he did. I am so grateful. And I am so honored that this man happened to be my father.
Lee: I want to thank Dr. Bernice King and Ilyasah Shabazz for taking some time to talk with me. This has been a conversation that I've wanted to have for a very long time, and few can understand their collective plight, their struggle, and also their inheritance, than these two women. So thank you.
Into America is 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 Ellen Frankman. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next Thursday.