NEW YORK — THE embrace of the two civil rights leaders, both widows by assassins' bullets, symbolized the black community's broad support for Malcolm X's daughter, whom the FBI accuses of plotting to avenge her father's death.
In a Harlem church, Coretta Scott King told Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X's spouse, that the government had wrongly charged their daughter, Qubilah, of hiring a killer to strike Malcolm X's arch rival, Louis Farrakhan. Shabazz choked back tears and hugged King with a warmth the women's husbands never felt for each other.
``Her experience,'' Mrs. King told a church rally this week, ``has a regrettable but familiar ring to the families of well-known African-American leaders through the 20th century. Black leaders and their families from Marcus Garvey on down to this day have been subjected to campaigns of slander, harassment, and intimidation, designed to discredit their beliefs.''
From barber shops to law offices across the nation, many African-Americans are echoing King's sentiments and voicing the opinion that the FBI trumped up charges against Qubilah Shabazz to divide the black community.
``The whole thing is as phony as a $3 bill,'' says Ernie Chambers, a state senator in Lincoln, Neb. ``She was the most vulnerable one of Malcolm's daughters; that's why there is nothing but sympathy toward her in the black community.''
In mid-January the FBI charged that Minneapolis-resident Qubilah Shabazz hired an assassin and made a partial payment for the killing. Shabazz has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Shabazz was only 4 when she saw her father gunned down in Harlem 30 years ago; her mother has said she believes that Mr. Farrakhan, a former Malcolm X associate turned rival, was involved.
The allegations against Qubilah are based on taped conversations she had last summer with an FBI informant, Michael Fitzpatrick, a friend with whom she had also discussed marriage. Many observers question his reliability as a witness because of his history of legal troubles, including an arrest for bombing a Manhattan bookstore and pending drug charges.
``It does seem to be highly suspicious,'' says acting NAACP head Earl Shinhoster. ``It does seem to be some calculation, some setup.''
He adds that the FBI's allegations recall past campaigns to infiltrate black movements and to smear black leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. For example, in an effort to discredit Dr. King in the 1960s, the FBI offered journalists audio tapes purporting to show King cavorting with women other than his wife.
The FBI and the Justice Department respond that they have the evidence necessary to make their case. ``We're aware of allegations that our cases are brought because of race, and we have repeatedly said that's nonsense,'' says Justice Department spokesman John Russell. ``Our cases are brought on facts and evidence.''
Still, many African-Americans, including would-be target Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, are pronouncing Shabazz's innocence without having seen the transcripts of the taped conversations, which have not been made public.
``People are eager and I would say perhaps too eager to just leap to the conclusion ... `here we go again with the FBI,' '' says George Curry, editor of Emerge, a black news magazine. ``You need to hear the evidence before you really make up your mind, but that's not the case now.''
Shabazz's attorney says he would like to exploit public suspicions to pressure the government to dismiss the charges. The strategy is ``exposure as much as possible to show how much public support it has,'' explains William Kunstler, a prominent civil rights attorney who knew Malcolm X. ``My thought is that it should go away.''
He expects pro-Shabazz rallies to take place in Minnesota and elsewhere in the coming weeks to both generate support and raise money.
About 250 people showed up for the Harlem church meeting this week, but at least a few said they are not willing to give Shabazz their blanket support. ``I bet 20 years ago none of these people supported Malcolm X,'' said Brian Jenkins, a furniture-store worker. ``There are other things that are worth getting whipped up about.''
More typical, however, are the views of Michele Hamilton, a New York City accountant. ``All African-Americans need to put political pressure on this case. I don't think she's going to get a fair trial.''
Addressing the crowd, the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, pastor at the House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. explained that the quick embrace of Shabazz comes largely because of her tie to one of black America's enduring icons. ``They have touched royalty; they have touched a family that is sacred to us.''