Ricky Flores photos

As we commemorate Malcolm X on the 58th year after his murder, the community recalls the “Fight to Save the Audubon Ballroom.”

The historic Audubon Ballroom once stood at 165th and Broadway in Harlem. It was where Malcolm X began organizing the Organization of Afro American Unity, after leaving the Nation of Islam and traveling to Africa to address the Organization of African Unity meeting in Cairo, Egypt, in 1964. He expanded his world view and led weekly rallies organizing our people’s struggle for human rights and Pan Africanism. It was also where he was assassinated on February 21, 1965. 

Community discontent rapidly developed, sparked by a Village Voice by investigative journalist Peggy Dye, “High Tech Ballroom,” on December 5, 1989, which exposed the plan to destroy the Audubon. 

In 1983, Columbia University acquired possession of the Audubon, then a city-owned property, from the NYC Office of Economic Development. In 1987, the university implemented its $200 million plan to destroy the building and erect biotechnology laboratories, financed by state and city loans.

Columbia University’s decades-long takeover of land in Harlem hit a breaking point. The Save the Audubon Coalition (STAC), led by the late veteran activist Olive Armstrong of the December 12th Movement, took to the streets. Massive demonstrations, including the Black Consciousness Movement, Columbia Student Organizations, grassroots political organizations, historians, and everyday people, stormed offices of then-Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Felice Michetti, picketed the university president’s home, took over the university library for days on end, blocked the entrances to the George Washington and Triboro Bridges, and confronted elected officials.

They demanded the preservation of the Audubon Ballroom as a memorial to Malcolm X, which Columbia’s President Michael Sovern rejected outright. He said, “Biomedical research is glorious, because not only does it generate jobs, it saves lives.”

The director of planning and development added, “We are not in the business of building museums.”

STAC leaders retorted by emphasizing the fact that most of the high-paying jobs in laboratory research required advanced degrees that community residents did not possess. Clearly it was not for their benefit. 

The years-long struggle continued and the end result was, indeed, preservation of the Audubon Ballroom as a memorial for El Hajj Malik El Shabazz. “All Power to the People.” As Olive Armstrong would say, “Never give up!”

 Long live the fighting spirit of Malcolm X.

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