Hundreds mourn Betty Shabazz Funeral rites held at N.Y. Islamic center

June 28, 1997|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK -- Betty Shabazz, widow of the slain African-American leader Malcolm X, was laid to rest yesterday afternoon with the same Sunni Muslim funeral service that marked his passing 32 years ago.

Late yesterday afternoon, her casket was placed atop her husband's in a family grave at Ferncliff Cemetery in Ardsley, a suburb 20 miles north of New York.

The outpouring of emotion for Dr. Shabazz seemed to surprise even her family and friends.

For a week, the mourning united this fractious city, with the most extreme of Harlem's black nationalist leaders joining the city's Republican mayor in praising her as a civil rights voice and mother of six.

Old friends of the family couldn't help but contrast the warm feelings for Dr. Shabazz with the mixed reaction after Malcolm X was gunned down in the Audubon Ballroom in February 1965.

The family's attorney, Percy Sutton, recalled how he had struggled to find a cemetery that would accept Malcolm X's body. This week, the family sorted through dozens of offers to donate funeral and burial expenses.

"At the time, he and those who believed in Malcolm were seen as outlaws, even by some people in our community, and it was a trick to bury him," Sutton said. "My, how times have changed."

Dr. Shabazz died Monday at the Jacobi Medical Center, three weeks after she was badly burned in a fire at her Yonkers apartment. She was 61.

Her 12-year-old grandson, Malcolm Shabazz, faces murder charges in the fire, though family members have argued that charges should be dropped.

The grandson did not attend yesterday's service, according to family friends and the imam, or Muslim prayer leader, who presided, and there was only brief mention of him.

"Our sister, Betty Shabazz, died by burning," said imam Mohammed Salem Agwa during a prayer service. "May Allah forgive the person who did that."

The private funeral was held on the Upper East Side at the Islamic Cultural Center, a grand, domed structure built six years ago by Kuwaiti benefactors.

At the traditional service, men and women were separated as soon as they entered. Men knelt on the floor of the main room, as women gathered in a balcony and in a prayer room marked "For sisters only."

There, mourners wearing bright dresses and head coverings bowed before a prayer rug that had been hung on the wall.

Non-Muslim male dignitaries, including former New York Mayor David N. Dinkins and "60 Minutes" correspondent Mike Wallace, sat in folding chairs to the side.

Dr. Shabazz's six daughters chose to spend the service downstairs at the center, where they had been receiving visitors since 10 a.m. yesterday.

It was an awkward event, with microphones that repeatedly failed the imams who spoke and several attendees, apparently unfamiliar with the service, talking loudly at inappropriate times.

The imams, Mohammed Salem Agwa and Abdel-Rahman Osman, thanked nearly everyone -- from President Clinton to the world's non-Muslims to the "media men" gathered outside -- who had felt a sense of loss at Shabazz's death.

But they delivered a firm message, saying death is not a tragedy but a "transition" to be honored.

After the service, family members prayed for a few minutes with the imams. Then Dr. Shabazz's gray casket was carried outside, as a crowd of 800 that lined Third Avenue looked on. Several chanted with the pallbearers in Arabic, asking Allah to take her body.

"This life is a test for the next life," Agwa said both in Arabic and in English. "Death represents a sincere relief for Muslims. The truest Muslim loves to die."

The imams invited Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to speak to mourners, despite audible grumbles.

"I think everyone in our city has been touched by this terrible tragedy," he said, "because everyone in New York has been ennobled by her contributions to our civic life. Her family should know that in the future, you are not alone and you are respected."

Giuliani, who is deeply unpopular with black New Yorkers, was loudly jeered Thursday in Harlem as he entered a funeral home to pay respects to Dr. Shabazz's body and her family.

On Wednesday and Thursday evenings, about 7,000 people came through the doors of the funeral home. Lines stretched around the block, and some mourners waited for more than an hour.

The mourners, few of whom had done more than shake Dr. Shabazz's hand, spoke in personal rather than political terms about what she meant to them.

They talked about how she pursued her education, how she moved her six daughters to the suburbs and raised them by herself. Some noted that she had turned down job offers from more prominent schools to stay at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn and serve its largely black student body.

Rosa Bradley, a former dean of students at the college, stood in the rain for an hour to get a glimpse of her colleague's casket.

"She loved being an administrator, looking after people and sometimes having to tell them what to do," said Bradley. "I didn't have that same love, and I'm back to teaching biology now."

Ron Liggins, 40, an information systems manager from Manhattan, waited in line behind Bradley with his 4-year-old daughter, Zenzile, in his arms.

"She is too young to know about the particulars of the death," said Liggins. "But we talked about how she was a good mother and about how she has become an ancestor now.

"I hope coming here will create a remembrance for Zenzile, and when she is older, she will want to find out about Sister Betty for herself."

Pub Date: 6/28/97

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