Adrian Kulezsa, Staff Photographer

On Saturday, Rutgers professor and anthropologist Donna Auston held a talk titled “If It Wasn’t For the Women: The Activist Legacies of Louise Little, Ella Collins and Betty Shabazz,” which highlighted the contributions of the three leaders to the civil rights movement.

The Zoom webinar, which started at 6 p.m., is the third annual lecture honoring the life and work of Malcolm X — who is also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz — and Betty Shabazz. 

This year’s event took place on the 56th anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination and was sponsored by the Muslim Leadership Lab at Dwight Hall at Yale in partnership with the Muslim Life Program at the Yale Chaplain’s Office. The lecture explored the impacts that Little, Collins and Shabazz left on their communities and broader society. 

“We want to begin to think about Black women’s perspectives in a different way.Auston said during the talk. “I would like to try or implore us together to begin to take these women out of the margins and move them into the center. And help us to understand them not just as accessories to Malcolm’s legacy, but actually creators of it.” 

The lecture was introduced by Abdul-Rehman Malik, director of the Muslim Leadership Lab, and Yousra Omer ’22, president of the Yale Muslim Students Association. 

Malik founded the Muslim Leadership Lab in 2018 to promote advocacy amongst Muslims and their allies both at Yale and in the broader New Haven community. The lab holds workshops, discussions and readings of religious and contemporary texts. 

During the first half of the event, Auston summarized the lives and contributions of the three women.

Little, who was fluent in multiple languages, organized for the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a national group focused on Black empowerment. She directly engaged with white supremacists who came to her house when she was pregnant with her son, Malcolm X. 

Shabazz was raised largely sheltered from racism as a child and experienced extreme discrimination while in college in the South. Despite this, she became a nurse, raised six daughters and later received a doctorate in education. 

Finally, Collins owned real estate with her sisters and helped many of her family members migrate north during the Great Migration. She founded a school in Boston, worked as a secretary to a New York City representative and, later, became the guardian of her half-brother, Malcolm X, who was in foster care.

In the second half of the event, Auston opened up the floor to questions. Humera Khan, an attendee from the United Kingdom, said that she “really empathized” with the women described in the talk. Khan and her late husband have been activists for decades.

“This is something I’ve been fighting for myself,” she said. “You can’t overlook the contribution that women make, the choices women make in being the nurturers, in being the supporters, in being the ones who are facilitators, the ones who are picking up the pieces.”

According to Malik, the annual lecture series was started in 2019 to remember Betty Shabazz and Malcolm X and to “think about what their legacies have looked like and could look like.” The first lecture — which was led by Sylvia Chan-Malik, an associate professor at Rutgers University — focused on revolution and the uncovering of Black female stories. The second lecture, led by historian Rasul Miller, was about Black radical activism inspired by post-Malcolm X Muslim movements.

“We’ve tried to keep the lecture contemporary and lively and speak to the moment,” Malik told the News. “Leadership isn’t something that’s rarified for the privileged, but each and every one of us expresses and can express leadership in our families, our communities, in our societies, in our neighborhoods.”

Sheikh Nahiyan ’24, an attendee, said that he appreciated hearing from Auston, noting that a lot of what he learned was “totally new.” According to Nahiyan, this lecture provided a new perspective that he had not gotten before due to the lack of Muslim-focused classes at Yale. 

Auston mentioned that while progress has been made in uncovering the histories of these women — such as a recently published biography of Betty Shabazz — there is still much work to do. She added that she “learned a lot” while doing research for the lecture. As a Black Muslim woman, she describes studying the histories of the three women as relevant to her own life.

“Part of the impetus for the talk for me is my own questions,” she said in an interview with the News. “I have to be able to figure out how to make the generality [of faith] work for my specificity. And these women provide very good examples of how it might be done.” 

A recording of the event is available on the Dwight Hall at Yale Facebook page. 

Simisola Fagbemi |