Shabazz moved to New York City to escape Southern racism, and enrolled as a nursing student at the Brooklyn State Hospital School of Nursing. While in New York, Shabazz's friend invited her to hear Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X from the Nation of Islam speak at an Islamic temple (Temple No. 7 in Harlem). According to the Essence essay, Shabazz's friend offered to introduce her to Malcolm X after his speech. Betty's initial reaction was "big deal". She continues: "But then, I looked over and saw this man on the extreme right aisle sort of galloping to the podium. He was tall, he was thin, and the way he was galloping it looked as though he was going someplace much more important than the podium... Well, he got to the podium and I sat up straight. I was impressed with him." They discussed the racism she encountered in Alabama, and she began to understand its causes, pervasiveness, and effects. Soon, Betty was attending all of Malcolm's lectures. By the time she graduated from nursing school in 1958, she was a member of the Nation of Islam. Muhammad bestowed of his followers the last name "X", representing the African family name they would never know. She changed her name to "Betty X" a result of her Nation of Islam influence.
After their split from The Nation of Islam in 1964, Malcolm and Betty X adopted the last name, Shabazz. Together, they had six daughters — Attallah (b. 1958), Qubilah (b. 1960), Ilyasah (b. 1963), Gamilah (b. 1964) and twins Malaak and Malikah (b. 1965, seven months after Malcolm X's death).
Alex Haley wrote in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, "Sister Betty came through the people, herself a nurse, and people recognizing her moved back; she fell on her knees, looking down on his bare, bullet-pocked chest, sobbing, 'They killed him!' "
One of the three assassins was captured at the scene, and all three were members of the Nation of Islam. Later, each was convicted and sent to prison.
In the essay for Essence Magazine in 1992, Shabazz confessed, I really don't know where I'd be today if I had not gone to Mecca to make Hajj shortly after Malcolm was assassinated. . And that is what helped put me back on track. I remembered one of the things Malcolm always said to me is, 'Don't be bitter. Remember Lot's wife when they kill me, and they surely will. You have to use all of your energy to do what it is you have to do.'
According to daughter Ilyasah Shabazz's autobiography, Growing Up X (2002), after Malcolm X's demise, Betty Shabazz got help from wealthy close friends and celebrities to acquire a large, beautiful home in Mount Vernon, New York for her family. Malcolm and Betty had split from The Nation of Islam in 1964 and in turn, the Nation had recently evicted Malcolm and family from the small house it had provided during Malcolm X's ministry, just before the assassination. In her book, Ilyasah writes that Betty Shabazz worked very hard to ensure that her daughters were well provided for. They led sheltered, comfortable, upper class lives, complete with the luxury of housekeepers, chauffeured cars, exclusive social clubs, and expensive, predominantly white private schools, private tutors and summer camps.
In January 1995, Betty and Malcolm X's daughter Qubilah Shabazz were charged in Minneapolis with trying to hire an assassin to murder Farrakhan in retaliation for the murder of her father. The assassin turned out to be a government informant. Farrakhan surprised everyone by defending Qubilah. He claimed that she had been manipulated by government agents who wanted to breed ill feelings within the Nation of Islam and throughout the African American community. In May 1995, Shabazz eventually reconciled with Farrakhan, shaking his hand on the stage of Harlem's Apollo Theater at a fundraiser for her daughter's defense. The fundraiser had been arranged by Farrakhan to help pay for Qubilah's legal fees. Betty Shabazz spoke at Farrakhan's Million Man March in October 1995.
Qubilah was not imprisoned for her plot to assassinate Farrakhan. However, she was required to undergo psychological counseling and treatment for drug and alcohol abuse for a two-year period. During this period, Qubilah's 12-year-old son, Malcolm, was sent to live with Shabazz at her apartment in Yonkers, New York.
Police arrested Malcolm Shabazz within hours of the fire being started and accused of setting the blaze. He was later sentenced to eighteen months in juvenile detention for manslaughter.
At the time of her death, Betty Shabazz headed the Office of Institutional Advancement and Public Relations at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn (part of the City University of New York). More than 2,000 mourners attended a memorial service for Shabazz at New York City's Riverside Church. Many prominent leaders including Coretta Scott King (widow of Martin Luther King, Jr.), Myrlie Evers-Williams (widow of Medgar Evers), poet Maya Angelou, actor-activist Ossie Davis, four New York City mayors—Rudolph Giuliani, David Dinkins, Edward Koch and Abraham Beame; U.S. Representative Maxine Waters and New York Governor George Pataki were present for her memorial service. U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman delivered a tribute from President Bill Clinton. In a statement released after Shabazz's death, black civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said, "She never stopped giving and she never became cynical. She leaves today the legacy of one who epitomized hope and healing."
Shabazz's funeral service was held at the Islamic Cultural Center in New York City. Her wake was at the Unity Funeral Home in Harlem (the same location where Malcolm X's wake was held 32 years before). Betty Shabazz was buried next to her husband, Malcolm X, at the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
There is a major mosque in Harlem named after Shabazz.