In the Name of Her Father
01/30/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
PETTY CROOK, POLITICAL FIRE-brand, embittered racist and apostle of tolerance, Malcolm X was many things in his short, hectic career—and not always quite what he seemed. After his 1965 assassination by three gunmen just as he was about to speak to followers at Harlem's Audubon Ballroom, his death spawned a rash of conspiracy theories. Three Black Muslims were eventually convicted of his killing, but some Malcolm X supporters—widow Betty Shabazz among them—openly implicated in the murder plot Malcolm's longtime rival in the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan has vehemently denied that he had a role in Malcolm's death.
Over 30 years, the debate over Malcolm X's killing dwindled but never actually died. Then last week in Minneapolis, the controversy flared anew. On Jan. 12, after a seven-month FBI investigation, 34-year-old Qubilah Shabazz, Malcolm's second of six daughters—who, at age 4, had witnessed his murder—was charged with negotiating with a hit man to murder Farrakhan, now 61 and the powerful leader of the NOI. Police claimed she made a down payment to a would-be killer—a former schoolmate working as an FBI informant—and said they had some 20 audio and videotapes as evidence of the plot. Shabazz, represented in court by lawyers William Kunstler and Percy Sutton—both of whom defended her father in the 1960s—pleaded not guilty and is now scheduled for trial on March 27 in Minneapolis. If convicted, she could face up to 90 years in prison.
Following Qubilah's arraignment, Betty Shabazz furiously defended her daughter—and denied that she had raised any of her children to seek revenge. "All of the emphasis on my children," she told reporters, "was on doing well in school." Some African-Americans suggested that Qubilah was a victim of government entrapment. Even Farrakhan himself, in a press conference held in Chicago last week, declared the allegations a trick meant to divide and conquer black leadership. "Qubilah is a child I knew and held in my arms as a baby. I do not believe that Qubilah is an evil woman," he proclaimed, but "a tool in a diabolical scheme."
One reason for the widespread skepticism, perhaps, is the shady history of the alleged informant, Michael Fitzpatrick, 34, Qubilah's former high school classmate and, some suggest, her recent boyfriend. "They sounded about as close and affectionate as one could get," says famed photojournalist and movie director Gordon Parks, 82 and Qubilah's godfather, noting that Shabazz moved from New York City to Minneapolis in September expressly to be with Fitzpatrick.
After their graduation from New York's prestigious United Nations International School in 1978, however, the pair had initially gone their separate ways. Qubilah headed to Princeton, then dropped out after two semesters and went to Paris to attend the Sorbonne. While in France, she bore a son, Malcolm, now 14.
At about the same time, Fitzpatrick was on his way to becoming a professional stool pigeon. The son of a Jewish mother, he had joined the radical Jewish Defense League as a teenager and in 1978 was arrested when the JDL bombed Manhattan's Four Continents Bookstore, which sold Russian-language books. In return for leniency he testified against Bruce Berger and Victor Vancier in the planned bombing of the Manhattan Egyptian tourism office. According to Vancier, who served 21 months in prison, Fitzpatrick was bloodthirsty and potentially dangerous. "He wanted us to go around killing people," Vancier has said. "I told him, 'We're not the PLO "
Soon, Fitzpatrick entered the Witness Protection Program under the name Michael Summers and is said to have infiltrated the Communist Party, various peace groups and, in 1986, a Minneapolis anarchist collective called Back Room Anarchist Books. There he encouraged bomb attacks on polling places—tactics the group spurned. "If he were to honestly fill out his tax return under 'occupation,' " says Steven Rambam, 37, a private investigator once associated with the JDL, "he would have to put 'agent provocateur.' " Adds Don Kaplan, another JDL associate: "Fitzpatrick would frame his mother if he had to."
Whether or not he has framed Qubilah Shabazz, she is clearly a troubled and unsettled young woman. One morning in December she was seen by local PBS television producer John Whitehead at a check-cashing office. She smelled of alcohol, says Whitehead, and handed out a $20 bill to the business's janitor—and then sat on his lap—proclaiming that she was giving away money every day of the month to "make myself happy." Though no one in her family will comment, her son Malcolm has been placed in St. Joseph's Home for Children in Minneapolis. Officials there declined to discuss the case, but children are generally sent to the facility because of problems at home or trouble with the law. One of her attorneys has said that her son's placement in the home had nothing to do with her recent arrest.
Qubilah's own childhood, by contrast, seems to have been surprisingly normal despite the trauma of her father's death. She and her sisters were raised to be "ladylike," one acquaintance observes. "They weren't allowed to explore their crushes—to get crazy and wild." While their mother, Betty, now 58, forged her own successful career as a public-affairs administrator at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, she instilled in her offspring an abiding reverence for their father, surrounding them with images of his life and work. "My children," Betty told The Washington Post, "were reared on a picture of Daddy."
Revenge, however, was not a part of the children's upbringing, insist family friends. "I never got the sense that they were raised in bitterness—like 'Somebody's got to pay for Daddy being taken away,' " recalls one—even though Betty Shabazz has never concealed her suspicions about Farrakhan. "Nobody kept it a secret," she told WNBC last March. "It was a badge of honor."
Qubilah, however, is not known to have expressed herself on the subject. "She was very shy, very soft-spoken—almost saintly," says Gordon Parks. "Since I've known her, I've never heard her voice any resentment about her father's killing." At the U.N. School she kept a distinctly low profile. "She was so quiet that it was hard to tell whether she was bright or not," according to a classmate. "I doubt very many people knew she was Malcolm X's daughter."
Now everyone knows. But the enigma of Qubilah, whom one friend calls "as vulnerable a person as you could find," seemed only to deepen as accounts of the evidence against her began to surface. A report last week in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis cited covert videotape footage that allegedly shows Qubilah raising objections to a Farrakhan murder plot out of a concern that innocent people might be hurt. The newspaper also cited two anonymous government officials who maintain that the FBI tapes, despite the prosecution's claims to the contrary, do not show Shabazz planning the hit. And the credibility of informant Fitzpatrick is also in question. He faces drug charges in Minnesota, and Shabazz supporters suggest he may have set her up to gain favor with law enforcement officials.
As the drama plays out, Qubilah's aunt, for one, is reserving judgment. "We should be careful not to allow anybody to cause us to look suspiciously at one another," says Ameenah Omar, 53, the widow of Malcolm X's older brother Abdul Aziz Omar, who died last year. "We have to close ranks, both blacks and whites. We're in this together."
NANCY MATSUMOTO and MARIA SPEIDEL in New York City and MARGARET NELSON in Minneapolis