June 16, 1997 12:00 PM

AT THE AGE OF 63, BETTY SHABAZZ, WIDOW OF MALCOLM X, lamented the task that lay before her, yet she never flinched from it. Betty’s daughter Qubilah Shabazz, 36, seemed unable to raise her own son, 12-year-old Malcolm, named after his martyred grandfather. And so Betty had gamely agreed to provide the youngster with that most precious of birthrights, a stable home and firm guidance, even if it meant again taking on the trying burden of parenthood. “She knew that she was his last hope and his best hope,” says Ernest Davis, mayor of the New York City suburb of Mount Vernon and a friend of the Shabazz family for 20 years. “She was from the generation that still believed that you have to invest in children and sacrifice for them.”

Now it seems that Betty Shabazz might well have made the ultimate sacrifice. In a courtroom in Yonkers, N.Y., Malcolm Shabazz stood charged with dousing a hallway inside his grandmother’s apartment with gasoline and setting it afire just after midnight on June 1. Clad only in a nightgown, Betty had run through flames to escape the blaze, suffering third-degree burns over 80 percent of her body. Last week, as she clung, barely, to life in a nearby New York City hospital, those close to her attempted to fathom how Malcolm could have harmed the one person who had given him the most. “He is a child who came into a climate of tragedy…who has suffered much over the years,” said Percy Sutton, a longtime family friend who was serving as Malcolm Shabazz’s lawyer. “He is a child who needs care.”

The boy’s torment seems rooted in the troubles that have plagued his mother, Qubilah, for much of her life. By all accounts, Betty Shabazz did an exemplary job of raising her six daughters after the assassination of her husband. Qubilah’s sister Ilyasah, for instance, works as a public relations official for the city of Mount Vernon. But the trauma seemed to fall especially hard on Qubilah, who was 4 years old when she witnessed the killing of Malcolm X at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom on May 21, 1965. A bright, quiet girl, she graduated from the prestigious United Nations International School in New York City and entered Princeton. But she dropped out after two semesters and attended the Sorbonne in Paris, where she gave birth to Malcolm. (The identity of the father has not been disclosed.)

Years of an essentially itinerant life followed. Qubilah took Malcolm to live with her in a number of cheap rooming houses, and it became clear that she had a drinking problem. Two years ago, Qubilah surfaced in Minneapolis, where she was implicated in a bizarre scheme with a hit man to kill Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, whom the Shabazz family had long suspected was responsible for Malcolm X’s assassination. As part of her deal with prosecutors, Qubilah was required to get psychiatric counseling.

With the help of lawyer Sutton, Qubilah moved to San Antonio and took a job at a radio station that he and his family own. Young Malcolm, meantime, was sent to live with his grandmother in the New York City area while his mother got settled. Qubilah’s hope, says Charles Andrews Jr., general manager of the San Antonio radio station, was “to have a fresh chance to be successful.” By and large, she did well at the station, where she went under the name Karen Taylor to guard her privacy, doing everything from working on tapes to answering phones. Still, it appeared on several occasions that she had resumed drinking.

By last fall, Qubilah had become involved with Thedra Turner, 38, who was on parole for burglary. In November she called police to complain that Turner had flung her against a wall. Yet a month later the two were married. In January, Qubilah had Turner arrested for shoving her out of a car during an argument. “Evidently he didn’t know the difference between his wife and a punching bag,” says an acquaintance in San Antonio. In February, Qubilah sought to have the marriage annulled. That was around the time when Malcolm returned to live with his mother after a two-year separation.

In retrospect it may have been a terrible mistake. While his grandmother had made sure that Malcolm got to school each day, he was now often truant, in one case, according to the youth, because Qubilah was too drunk to drive him to class. In late February, Qubilah called police to complain that Malcolm, whom she said was suffering from schizophrenia and had not been taking his medication for two years, had attacked her. Malcolm, who police later reported had appeared a bit delusional, told officers that he was angry because his mother had been drinking. Officers escorted both mother and son to a hospital for evaluation.

In late April, shortly after another altercation that required police intervention, the family decided Malcolm would be better off back with his grandmother. According to Andrews, the youngster was relieved to be out of San Antonio. “He was talking about how he was happy that he had this opportunity to go back to New York,” he says.

As always, Betty, who had spoken in the past with friends about Qubilah’s trouble, appeared eager to help. Certainly she herself had overcome much. After the murder of her husband, she earned a doctorate in education. For the past 21 years she has worked at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, most recently as a public-relations administrator. In addition she wore the mantle of her martyred husband with dignity. “This is a woman whose husband is literally worshiped in the African-American community,” says Eleanor Holmes Norton, congressional representative for the District of Columbia and a longtime friend, “but who doesn’t have the slightest sense of self-importance.”

What might have prompted her grandson to do what is alleged is unclear. There were reports that he had begun to miss life in San Antonio and may have been yearning to return to a girlfriend there. Under New York State law, he cannot be tried as an adult. If his grandmother dies, the stiffest sentence he could receive is five years, with the possibility that his incarceration could be extended until he turns 21. Not that any penalty could console Betty’s friends, who see last week’s incident as the purest sort of tragedy. “It’s just the evil of Malcolm’s murder reverberating down through the family and bouncing back and hitting Betty in a different way,” says civil rights activist Roger Wilkins. “It’s just the evil flowing from that one event, living in the spirit of a child who wasn’t even born then and flaring up in this flame.”

BILL HEWITT

JOSEPH HARMES in San Antonio, MARIA EFTIMIADES and RON ARIAS in New York City and JENNIFER MENDELSOHN in Washington

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