The Bond Between Civil Rights’ First Wives

Mary J. Blige and Malik Yoba talk about their new Lifetime film, Betty & Coretta.

Angela Bassett and Mary J. Blige in Betty & Coretta (Philippe Bosse/Lifetime)

The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, once slated to star as Nina Simone in a biopic about the iconic singer and civil rights activist (actress Zoe Saldana has replaced her), says she’s open to starring in other biographical roles if the right script comes along. The work would have to touch Blige like the “great experience” she’s had working behind and in front of the camera on Betty & Coretta. Blige said she found herself in awe of the deep friendship the widows shared.

“We were blown away by the script — by the fact that Betty and Coretta were even friends. We had no idea until they brought us the material … This is information that no one knew, so we definitely wanted to be a part of that,” said Blige, describing the two as “family women” whose biggest challenge was dealing with the assassinations of their husbands and having to raise their children in the aftermath. Betty Shabazz and Malcolm X were married for seven years and had six daughters.

Shabazz and Coretta Scott King’s closeness may have come as a surprise to most because, while the intentions of the women’s husbands were the same — creating peace and equality — the methods of achieving them appeared vastly different. For this reason, the legacies of Malcolm X (also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) and Martin Luther King Jr. were often pitted against each other, particularly to the American public. The two men met only once, a brief encounter in 1964 immortalized by a now-famous photograph of them grinning and shaking hands. Eleven months later, Malcolm X would be killed.

Blige never got a chance to meet Shabazz, who died in 1997, but she did meet Coretta Scott King during Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Ball nine months before Mrs. King’s 2006 death. At the three-day historic celebration, literary great Maya Angelou — also a close friend of the women — called Blige over to meet Mrs. King. The singer said she was unsure if Coretta Scott King and the other older women were familiar with her or her music.

“I turned around [and asked], ‘Do you guys know who I am?’ [And they said,] ‘We all know who you are.’ And I went and spoke with them and hugged them. And Coretta said she [loved me and] was proud of me,” Blige said. “I gained confidence from that experience in my own life.”

Two weeks ago, the singer says, she met another person very close to Shabazz: her third-oldest daughter, Ilyasah Al-Shabazz, whom she ran into at a restaurant. The chance meeting led to a lengthy conversation between the two and Al-Shabazz sharing intimate family photos with her. Blige said that Al-Shabazz is “positive” and “beautiful,” like her mother.

Al-Shabazz told The Root that it makes sense that her mother and Coretta Scott King would be friends.

“My sincerest hope,” she said, “is that the film Betty & Coretta will inspire women to see the gracious, intelligent, incandescent person that was Betty Shabazz and empower a new generation of women to forge meaningful bonds of friendship and support; and further, it will inspire us to always persevere through adversity to reach our highest potential.”

Aisha I. Jefferson is a frequent contributor to The Root. You can follow her on Twitter or visit her at

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