Black Liberation Culture, and the New Left, 1964-1975 Malcolm McLaughlin
Senior Lecturer in American Studies and History
at UEA, the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK1
Abstract: It was as a “political prisoner”–the owner of a radical bookshop and forum for revolutionary debate in Buffalo, New York, who was framed by the police and thrown into jail—that Martin Sostre attained national recognition in the 1960s. At the time, his name appeared alongside the likes of Huey P. Newton but, in the years since, his reputation has somewhat declined. Yet, he has much to tell historians about this turbulent age: as a jailhouse lawyer for the Nation of Islam in his youth, during his first term in prison, as a Black Power activist in Buffalo, or, later, as a campaigner for prisoners’ rights, and as a community activist in the 1980s-90s, his career traversed a crucial period in American history. This article reconstructs Sostre’s career, illuminating the making of radical culture in the 1960s, the connections between older and newer phases of struggle and between prison and ghetto.
Key words: Black nationalism; Black Power; Cultural nationalism; anti-colonialism; New Left; prisoners’ rights movement; black bookshops; Anarchism; Martin Sostre; Youth Against War and Fascism; long, hot summers.
Were revolution ever to have come to Buffalo, New York, during the 1960s, then it probably would have begun at the Afro-Asian Bookshop on Jefferson Avenue. It was there, in the exhilarating years leading up to the “long, hot summer” of 1967, that Martin Sostre, self-styled “Afro freedom fighter,” established a beacon of black liberation culture. His store was the place to find the writings of Douglass, DuBois, J. A. Rogers, and the autobiography of Malcolm X, but also the sort of publications that other local booksellers considered too subversive to sell. He boasted his was the only store in the region to hold the works of Castro, Che Guevara, Mao, Ho Chi Mihn, and Robert F. Williams. His bookshop was, he claimed, a “power base of revolutionary political philosophy.”2 Yet, along with revolutionary zeal, Sostre had an instinct for the market. His was a readily accessible form of politics and he broadened the store’s appeal with literature by Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Nathan Hare, LeRoi Jones, and others. Tapping interests that flourished during the Black Power years, he also sold African-inspired jewelry, lithographs, and carved wooden artworks. And, with a feel for youth fashion, he laid out boxes of hip soul records, and played music to tempt people inside. When customers came looking for Sam and Dave’s “Hold on I’m Coming”or asking about the African statuettes in the window, Sostre talked with them about Malcolm X’s message of black pride, and handed out antiwar pamphlets. At the height of his success, he could be found at the store late into the night, playing records, deep in discussion.3
Sostre’s time as proprietor of the Afro-Asian Bookshop was a pivotal moment in a long activist career, which was also a story of personal transformation, set amid the major political and intellectual currents of the age. Sostre arrived in Buffalo in 1964, aged 41, after spending the previous twelve years in Attica Prison, where he had become a convert to the Nation of Islam and a campaigner for the rights of Muslim inmates. By the time he settled in Buffalo, he had broken with the Nation but it served as a departure point for his intellectual journey. Guided by feelings of solidarity with peoples of color around the world, Sostre became absorbed by the revolutionary struggles of Cuba, China, and Vietnam.4 When he rented a storefront in the black community and opened for business with a handful of radical books arranged on homemade shelves, the name he chose reflected both his black nationalist roots and his emerging internationalism: the Afro-Asian Bookshop.
Things went well at first. Student activists of Youth Against War and Fascism (YAWF) from the nearby SUNY, Buffalo, campus discovered the store and, as word spread, he received visitors from across the region – from Rochester, Syracuse, Lackawanna, Erie, and Toronto, Canada.5 But, then, just as he was establishing himself, everything fell apart. When rioting erupted in Buffalo’s black community in the summer of 1967, Sostre could not resist the temptation to get involved. The authorities, who had long viewed his store with suspicion, moved against him. In one of the era’s many now-notorious counterintelligence operations, a combined force of FBI and police officers raided the bookstore, planted heroin on the premises, arrested Sostre, and charged him with dealing narcotics – and, almost as if it were an afterthought, with arson and incitement to riot. The riot charges were dropped but he was convicted on the drugs charge and sentenced to 31-41 years.
It was far from the end of the story, however. Sostre took his struggles back into prison. As well as fighting his own appeal, he pursued the prison authorities through the courts and demanded rights for inmates. Meanwhile, outside, his name became linked with other high-profile imprisoned activists – and the radical bookseller from Buffalo became a symbol for a nationwide movement. His student friends won the support of the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and others. At demonstrations during those years, “Free Martin Sostre” banners fluttered amid forests of placards demanding the release of other prisoners: Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, or New York’s “Panther 21.”6 Though divided by prison walls, Sostre and his supporters joined a common crusade against authoritarianism and political conformism. Eventually, Sostre won his freedom. A key witness retracted his false testimony and, increasingly, it became difficult to deny that Sostre had been victimized for his political beliefs. His case became an embarrassment. He was finally pardoned in December 1975.7
In the years that followed, Martin Sostre was almost wholly overlooked by historians. Perhaps that was partly because Buffalo could seem remote from the better-known centers of struggle such as Oakland or Newark. Perhaps it was partly because Sostre lacked the glamour of his better-known gun-toting, leather-jacketed contemporaries: a bookseller from Buffalo does not readily fit the heroic narrative that, for many years, shaped the way militants like Huey Newton or Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party were remembered.8 One ambition of this article is to recuperate the reputation of this too-long neglected activist by drawing on his writings, campaign materials, and prison correspondence.
Partly, what makes Sostre’s story particularly compelling is its broader resonance. His political thinking and activism emerged from an intriguing confluence of older traditions of ghetto struggle and the emerging political concerns of the 1960s. His bookshop was inspired by earlier forms of nationalism, militant self-help, and business enterprise. It embodied Sostre’s attempt to absorb, combine, and re-combine those established influences and to assimilate new ideas and ways of conceptualizing the relationship between black America and the world, racism and imperialism, and culture and politics. Part of Sostre’s importance lies in the way he successfully fused Malcolm X and soul music, for example, or Mao Zedong and African lithographs, into a meaningful political message for a new generation. He was not alone in doing so, but his work in Buffalo offers us an insight into the roots of Black Power culture and the African American search for self-definition during the 1960s.
Sostre’s experiences also have something to tell us about the relationship between ghetto struggles and prison activism. Writing in the Journal of Black Studies in 1975, Roberta Ann Johnson argued that “prison politicizes inmates not because it is so different” from the ghetto, “but because it is so similar.”9 Despite the important differences between prison and the ghetto, comparisons of that sort gained a certain currency during the 1970s partly because of connections between activism in both contexts, and their relationship to a wider set of causes. As James B. Jacobs has argued, prison activism flourished in the 1960s and 1970s largely in tandem with the burgeoning of movements for minority rights across the United States.10 Activists fought for shared goals inside prison as well as outside: for recognition of their claim upon the rights of citizenship, to assert their humanity, to construct a sense of community, and to define new political identities.11 Sostre was an important example of such activism. He moved from prison to the outside world and back again but, while the nature of his political activism changed to suit the context, the constant was his dogged campaign for freedom of speech and of conscience.
All of which is to say, he can be better understood in the context of the New Left insurgency, as defined by Van Gosse and others to include the totality of Sixties radicalism. The New Left, in those terms, was a diffuse “movement of movements,” encompassing the myriad struggles of the era – student antiwar activism, women’s and gay liberation movements, the “rainbow radicalism” of ethnic nationalism, Black Power, and so on.12 Sostre’s case was taken up by radicals of various stripes because of the larger cause it represented. During the 1960s, newly-reinvigorated police “red squads” and the FBI mobilized against black militancy and antiwar activism.13 As Gosse suggested, the “core reality” of the antiwar movement during those years was that it provided a place where “the scattered remnants, hunkered-down ideological currents, underground traditions, and new outgrowths of American radicalism regrouped.”14 Much the same could be said about the prisoner release campaigns, in which civil libertarians and intellectuals joined with black and white radicals. At the decade’s end, campaigns for the release of incarcerated activists seized national and international attention. Most famously, the imprisoned Black Panther leader Huey Newton emerged from his travails as an iconic “defiant defender of justice”– but there were others, Sostre included, for whose freedom activists campaigned. Their causes gathered wide support through the 1960s-1970s and – as will be seen – reflected America’s changing political culture.15 In that sense, this article is concerned with the connections between traditions of black struggle, the Black Power insurgency, and the evolution of American liberalism.
The Making of a Militant
Martin Sostre was born in Harlem in 1923 and was raised in poverty by his Puerto Rican mother during the turbulent years of the Depression – a time of “picketing, agitation, uprisings and gang fights,” as he later recalled. He dropped out of high school at an early age, learned his lessons on the Avenue instead of in the classroom, and consequently spent his youth in an out of trouble. It was during that time he first became aware of the National Memorial African Bookstore at 7th Avenue and 126th Street – Lewis Michaux's celebrated “House of Common Sense and Home of Proper Propaganda.” But while the black nationalist speakers who gathered there grabbed his attention, the draw of the illegal narcotics business proved stronger.16 His career as a drug peddler was interrupted by the war when he joined the U.S. Army in 1942, but he was back in Harlem four years later. Inevitably, though, his luck eventually ran out. In 1952, aged 29, he was caught, tried, convicted, and sentenced to a six-to-twelve year term in Attica Prison.17
In the 1950s, Attica was one of many prisons where the Nation of Islam flourished and Sostre soon joined. It was a fateful decision that placed him at odds with the prison authorities, who viewed the Nation as a threat to discipline rather than as a legitimate religion. He soon earned a reputation as a troublemaker.18 State Commissioner of Corrections Paul McGinnis described him as “a very difficult problem case” who “continuously failed to abide by the rules” of the prison. Indeed, he would challenge the regime openly after studying law.19 As plaintiff in the landmark case Sostre v. McGinnis (1964), he argued that the recent Civil Rights Act should guarantee freedom of worship in prison – a major contribution to the Nation of Islam’s struggle for recognition and to the emerging prisoners’ rights movement.20
His activism often landed him in difficulty. He flouted prison rules by hiding Muslim literature and law books in his cell and, on at least one occasion when these were discovered, he received 30-days in solitary. He served time in solitary for proselytizing in the yard, too, and for organizing a hunger strike. In the 1950s, he even ruined his chance for release by challenging the composition of the all-white New York State Parole Board. He succeeded in embarrassing them even if he did not win his case, but while they soon after appointed a black member, they punished Sostre by refusing him parole. As a model prisoner he could have been out after four years; in the end, he served the full twelve.21 Of course, the prison authorities had good reason to fear Sostre. Attica would experience an explosive riot in 1971 and, even in the 1960s, officials were concerned about that possibility.22 On one occasion, Muslim prisoners responded to the news that Sostre had been sent into solitary with a sit-down protest, and there was evident relief when the guards were able to “nip [it] in the bud” and avert an anticipated riot.23
After his release in 1964, Sostre settled in nearby Buffalo but his time in prison would set the pattern for his life ahead. He left the Nation of Islam behind but not its austere ethos of self-discipline nor, crucially, its black nationalism. He abandoned the Nation’s theology, including its belief in the inherent wickedness of all white people – although he continued to view the authority of the white-dominated political order as irredeemable, and would condemn those who accommodated themselves with it. His prison experiences would also shape his activism. Behind bars, he had challenged the oppressive conditions of his incarceration and inspired resistance; now, outside, his duty was to rouse the slumbering masses in a similar way. In prison, he learned that exemplary individual acts of defiance could spark collective disobedience. “Only by personal example,” he wrote, “can we hope to reach, awaken and inspire the masses to action.”24
He would seek to do so by establishing a radical bookshop. It was a logical decision for a man who grew up in Harlem and remembered Michaux’s bookshop – and also for one who had spent time in jail hiding forbidden books; who realized that knowledge caused anxiety among those in authority. He realized that an educated and articulate inmate was feared because, in an institution dedicated to the confinement of physical bodies, ideas were far harder to contain. Ideas could bring people together for a united purpose – a dangerous prospect for a prison. As he would discover, it was also considered a dangerous prospect outside prison.
When Sostre arrived in Buffalo, he found himself in what was, in many ways, an archetypal northern industrial city. It was a Democratic stronghold in which a growing black community struggled to be heard over the voices of conservative blue-collar Italian- and Polish-American voters. During Mayor Frank Sedita’s political heyday, 1958-1973 (with a Republican interregnum, 1962-1965), City Hall hired unprecedented numbers of African-Americans, and the Mayor himself counted two black politicians, Delmar Mitchell and Horace Johnson, among his closest advisers. Yet, essentially, he reflected the conservatism of his white supporters. He publically opposed busing, for example.25 Racial inequality was pervasive. Last in line for work, black people were hit hardest by the decline of the city’s steel industry.26 Discrimination also patterned the city’s neighborhoods, a legacy of postwar municipal housing policies, urban renewal, and white migration. Expressways marked the boundaries of the ghetto downtown and in south Buffalo; hostile homeowners kept a vigilant eye against black people moving southeast.27
In Sostre’s view, change would have to come from within the black community but he distrusted the existing black elite, for whom he reserved his fiercest rhetoric. In his view, their lack of tangible achievement revealed them as “parasitic opportunists” whose participation in politics legitimized the “injustices and depravations daily heaped upon the Black community.”28 Worse, “in order to curry political favors and patronage, these Uncle Tom leaders,” – presumably including Mitchell and Johnson – “lulled the white leaders into believing that everything was alright.”29 He was scornful, too, of the black press. In a furious letter, written in prison, Sostre railed against the “kneegrow newspapers” which had not reported his case – he probably had in mind the Republican Criterion.30 Of course, Sostre’s words echoed the strain of anti-bourgeois rhetoric that ran through Black Power and it helped him establish his own credentials. In 1967, he bought a Gestetner mimeograph machine to produce a newspaper, the belligerent-sounding Afro Freedom Fighter which would, Sostre wrote, “expose and denounce all those Black traitors who are selling out the Black community.”31 Presumably, the genuine tribune of the black community was to be found at the Afro-Asian Bookshop.
Sostre’s maverick radicalism made him an awkward fit in Buffalo’s activist circles. His experience of authority in prison left him accustomed to viewing the world in stark binaries. He was intolerant of compromise. He could accept small victories, but not if bought at the cost of principle and not if achieved through negotiation. It left him reluctant to build bridges, locally. Tellingly, the one group Sostre did connect with was Youth Against War and Fascism, a branch of the Trotskyist and Maoist-influenced Workers World Party. YAWF brought a hard edge to the campus antiwar movement: it had allied with SDS before driving the moderates out. Sostre befriended YAWF’s Gerald Gross in 1966 when he visited the store. Gross would later go on to organize the Martin Sostre Defense Committee. The two men shared a common language, one which came to characterize militant politics in the latter 1960s. As H. Rap Brown would later denounce the United States as “the Fourth Reich,” so Sostre and YAWF denounced what they saw as American fascism.32 America was “a racist, militarist – that is to say, fascist monstrosity,” Gross wrote in his introduction to Sostre’s collected prison correspondence; it was merely veiled under the “wraps of liberal bourgeois democracy.”33 Sostre was no less strident: the police were “Gestapo” officers; “neo-Nazis” were poised to “take over the complete control of government,” he predicted, and “every activist know[s] […] that will mean […] incineration in the ovens.”34
While Sostre bonded with the militant members of YAWF over such heated rhetoric, he alienated or ignored other local groups.35 There was a Nation of Islam temple in Buffalo – but he left that movement behind.36 There was a local chapter of SNCC – but he fell out quite badly with them. SNCC’s national chairman Stokely Carmichael embraced Black Power but Sostre considered the Buffalo chapter too moderate – or, at least, he claimed they objected to his “literature from China and other militant books” and he concluded he was “too revolutionary” for them. He had no use for SNCC, he wrote (somewhat self-importantly), other than possibly to use it “in the role of a Trojan Horse” in the future.37 Sostre was equally unmoved by Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation, which arrived in Buffalo in 1967. That summer, it organized a community coalition of civic, business, and religious groups into Build Unity, Integrity, Leadership, and Dignity (BUILD). Black residents, disappointed by Mayor Sedita, took heart from BUILD’s campaign to shame the city into action by draping condemned housing in white sheets – yet Sostre did not mention it in his prison correspondence.38
Sostre was unwilling to deal with established local activists who were cognizant of the need to nuance their message, to compromise and seek strategic rather than absolute victories. He remained strangely cut-off from important constituencies in the community that surrounded him, and to which (ironically) he sought to reach-out through his book store. That is, with the exception of one key constituency: youth. Sostre’s ambition was to establish his store as a center for ghetto youths, and that holds the key to understanding his activist strategy. When SUNY sociologist Frank Besag carried out interviews in Buffalo after the 1967 riot, one militant teenager claimed that local attitudes to the violence were divided by generation. SNCC, BUILD, and the clergy disapproved; “the riot was the younger generation against the older generation.”39 Sostre addressed himself to that younger generation and presented himself as their spokesman. He derided efforts by community leaders to calm the riot with offers of employment: young people wanted more than “those hot and dirty, low-paying jobs,” he argued; they wanted “justice” and a fair share. He saw youths as tinder for a revolutionary fire. The key question of the moment, he wrote, was therefore how “to command the allegiance of the militant Black youth.” His answer was the Afro-Asian Bookshop.40
There was a clear advantage in his appeal to youths. Most lacked political awareness or had only a nascent political consciousness. Sostre could stamp them in his own image. There would be no need to defer to moderates, apologize for his interest in Communism, or reconcile himself with the frustrating business of campaigning to extract small concessions (if anything) from City Hall. In the Afro-Asian Bookshop, he could establish a movement on his own terms and maintain a sense of political purity. The irony was, his approach appeared to owe more to Booker T. Washington than Che Guevara. In order to appeal to politically disengaged youths, Sostre had to modify the way in which he delivered his militant message. And, yet, as a result, he discovered a way to breathe life into the Black Power movement.
The Afro-Asian Bookshop
It is perhaps surprising that an aspiring revolutionary chose to wage his struggle through the means of business enterprise, a tradition of self-help often associated with gradualism and conservatism. However, Sostre did not embrace a conventional form of petty capitalism, and his approach to business changed the meaning of his endeavor. It exemplified a distinction that Harold Cruse referred to in his 1967 work, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Conventional black capitalists, Cruse argued, had to learn the lessons of history: Booker T. Washington’s business experiments had failed in his day, as had those of Marcus Garvey. Yet, for Cruse, that did not mean enterprise had to be abandoned. Rather, he looked to W.E.B. DuBois who had outlined, in Dusk of Dawn (1940), an alternative to the dominant mode of capitalism – a vision of “planned cooperative consumer and producer enterprises” that might be “initiated and engineered by Negroes themselves,” within black communities.41
Here was something closer to Sostre’s philosophy. Enterprise need not necessarily prioritize profit and self-interest at the expense of (or above) other social and cultural objectives. There were many historical precedents. As Allan Spear observed, the militant northern “Race Men” of the early twentieth century considered self-help to be “above all a business philosophy” and embraced cooperative enterprise and racial solidarity.42 Sostre was, of course, exposed to such political thinking in his youth, as he hustled on streets where nationalists addressed passers-by. That early education was reinforced when he joined the Nation of Islam – which also promoted business as the basis of black independence and established barbershops, grocery stores, bakeries, restaurants, and department stores.43
Sostre’s business strategy put him in line with an emerging trend. Floyd McKissick of CORE, for example, believed entrepreneurialism would be the driving force behind a political transformation, too: he envisaged the construction of a black-owned model community, Soul City, and hoped black corporations could ultimately “reclaim” ghetto businesses and form the basis of political power.44 The strategy could be compatible with conservatism: Roy Innis, for instance, defined Black Power as “black capitalism” and aligned himself with Nixon’s Republicans.45 But sometimes it was more clearly subversive, and Sostre’s business was part of a peculiar insurgent strand of black enterprise: the black bookshop movement.
Bookshops were a key part of the Black Power movement. During the 1960s-1970s, they helped disseminate new ideas and served as important local centers of debate and activism. Edward Vaughn’s Forum 66 bookstore in Detroit, which hosted events at the 1967 Black Arts Convention, was one such establishment.46 Some, like Drum and Spear in Washington, DC, and Hakim’s Bookshop in Philadelphia, emerged during the Black Power era to meet growing demand. Others, like Liberation Bookstore and the National Memorial African Bookshop, in New York, or Aquarian Books in Los Angeles, were rooted in the earlier phase of nationalist radicalism and became newly relevant in the 1960s.47 These businesses were vital to attempts to define political identity through culture and often presented a heady mix of black history, new age philosophy, religious writings, and Arabic texts. Sostre was not alone in stocking more than books. Nyumba Ya Ujamaa in Newark was “a bazaar of African arts, fabrics, jewelry, books, and crafts,” which met the rising demand during the 1960s-1970s for “soul products,” as William van Deburg described them.48 It is fitting that, in a consumer society, political identities were constructed in part at least through consumption (the counterculture, as Van Gosse reminds us, was substantially defined through such commodities, disseminated by “a dynamic stratum of ‘hip capitalists’” who “were just as important to the Haight and other hippie enclaves as any political activist.”)49 It was with reference to the consumption of such commodities that many black people came to define themselves as participants in a liberation struggle.
The political challenge that black bookstores represented was well understood at the time. Sostre’s was not the only store to suffer repression: police officers firebombed, smashed, and flooded Vaughn’s bookstore during the Detroit uprising of 1967; FBI surveillance forced Drum and Spear to fold in a climate of intimidation.50 While Sostre used business as a form of self-help, his ultimate goal was the formation of an insurgent grassroots movement and that was why he attracted the attention of the authorities. His answer to Frank Besag’s question of how the ghetto’s problems could be solved echoed the words of generations of ghetto militants: black businessmen needed to “put some of the profits back in” to the community, he said, and “the residents of the area can help best by […] uniting all groups and all strata from the grass roots to the business and professional groups and making one solid block.”51
However, the first challenge he faced was how to turn his center of militant politics into a self-sufficient business. Like any shopkeeper, he had to be creative in the way he appealed to customers. The advantage of the approach soon became clear: customer demand enabled him to gage his efforts. And, ironically, commercial imperatives determined that, primarily, his success would not be built upon books. In his prison letters he explained that his business began with merely forty books of black history and politics. They did not sell well and so “I then sought to diversify my meager stock,” he wrote, “by adding a few novels” by Richard Wright, and books by James Baldwin, and LeRoi Jones.52 Sales increased but he still failed to turn a profit so he began to think more imaginatively. He hung African lithographs on the walls, put African woodcarvings in the windows, and growing numbers of customers came in, asking about the curiosities.53 He sold few carvings – and more books but the real breakthrough came when he saw youths gathered at a neighboring record store which played music through speakers. Sostre realized the potential. “Music is the best form of advertising in the Black community,” he explained, “it attracts attention and everyone loves music.” He bought a record player and a clutch of records, and “[t]he reaction was instantaneous.” When the music played, “heads turned toward the shop,” and more customers came by.54 Sostre quit his job at Bethlehem Steel and began working full-time at the store, sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. When youths came looking for records, Sostre engaged them in political conversation. Sometimes he sold a book but, often, he let customers borrow copies or sit on the floor and read.55
It could easily have fallen flat but Sostre had a talent for talking with young people in a street-smart manner. He usually began by talking about Malcolm X, “the magical name which made them respond.” Copies of his autobiography, and pamphlets and recordings of his speeches were Sostre’s best sellers. Having hooked them with Malcolm X, Sostre would move on to Robert F. Williams, Kwame Nkrumah, or Mao. It all hinged on context, on creating what Sostre called “soul atmosphere” by relating politics to black culture and “careful blending of revolutionary literature, protest novels, traditional Negro histories, paintings by local artists, African carvings, tikis and lithographs, jazz and rhythm and blues records.” He made politics cool and relevant for the local youths. In contrast, a volunteer who helped at the store struggled to reach the customers. The man was “a politically sophisticated Black nationalist with plenty of revolutionary enthusiasm,” Sostre noted sadly, but “he was too square” and put the kids off. Sostre believed he had struck upon a vital form of political activism: “militant Black leaders must organize, in their totality, all of the indigenous cultural forces that have meaning for and give substance to the[ir] outlook.” For other aspiring political entrepreneurs, he estimated a similar operation could be established using his method for as little as $600.56
The Storefront Revolutionary
Partly it was style, partly it was marketing, but, behind it all, Sostre’s success rested on the free play of ideas that his store embodied. His was a populist approach that reflected an undogmatic intellectual eclecticism. His student visitors, for example, were impressed by his broad knowledge, command of current affairs, black and Asian literature, history, politics, and philosophy.57 It was the atmosphere of leftist intellectual permissiveness that provided Sostre with the opportunity to create a space for political dissent which local black youths and student radicals could both share.
Rather like Malcolm X, Sostre had made the journey from street hustler to Muslim prison convert, before transcending the Nation of Islam’s narrow dogma. There were important differences, of course. Sostre did not follow Malcolm’s path to Sunni Islam, for instance. However, both traced a similar political trajectory. In the last months of his life, and particularly after his experience of the hajj and his travels in Africa during April and May 1964, Malcolm X began to grapple with new ways of understanding the problem of racism. He searched for a synthesis among the many ideas that assailed his intellect during his travels and afterwards: Islam, the politics of anti-colonialism, pan-Africanism, socialism, and liberal notions of human rights. Bruce Perry tended to write him off by describing him during that time as a “political chameleon” who simply told his audiences what they wanted to hear.58 But that is too harsh. In truth, this was a creative period for Malcolm X – one cut off all too soon when he was killed in February 1965. Granted, the isolation that followed his departure from the NOI made his search for new ideas and new allies imperative. Yet, by opening a dialogue with socialists, anti-colonialists, and other radicals, he enriched his understanding of the predicament of black Americans and raised the possibility of a broader political coalition.
Sostre similarly went in search of new ideas. His interests reflected the diversity of the influences upon the New Left and the counterculture, and the common roots the different branches of Sixties radicalism shared. Sostre offered few strictly original ideas of his own to the black liberation struggle. Rather, his contribution lay in the way he fused various emerging and older strands of black militancy and the American left. Unlike Malcolm X, though, his new influences did not come from international travel. He stands for the millions of Americans whose experience of the defining struggles of the age came through the mediated form of the printed word, political tracts, pamphlets, or newssheets. The Afro-Asian Bookstore was distant from the nation’s large metropolitan centers but Sostre’s cosmopolitan outlook meant that it could hardly be considered “provincial” in the sense typically associated with the word.
Sostre gleaned his own knowledge about the emerging Black Power movement through journals like Black Dialogue and The Liberator – theforums for the movement’s formative debates.59 The Afro-Asian Bookshop was one of many cultural centers in America which disseminated Black Power culture and political ideas to local communities.60 Yet, his interests were still broader. Sostre became interested in eastern philosophy: during his time at Attica, he studied Indian scriptures and learned the yogic techniques that helped him endure solitary confinement. As well as a sense of spiritualism, it encouraged independence of mind. Sostre decried those “whose spirit is captive to the wooden party line.” People, he argued, should not become “mere chess pieces to be used and exploited for the sake of the political game.” Unsurprisingly, then, the ethos of anarchism appealed to him – although, by 1967, he had only belatedly acquired “sketches of Kropotkin, Bakunin and others” and his knowledge was rudimentary.61 No doubt many of anarchism’s defining themes – its emphasis on voluntarism, anti-authoritarianism, and “propaganda by deed” – appealed to Sostre, a man who had created a cultural center from the ground up in order to lead by example. Of course, such anti-authoritarian, anarchist-inflected thought was common across the New Left.62
Above all, Sostre’s view of the world came into focus through the politics of anti-imperialism. The African, Cuban, and Chinese revolutionary movements that provided inspiration for The Liberator and the Black Arts movement also excited Sostre.63 He read the writings of Nkrumah, Che Guevara, Mao, and Ho Chi Mihn and it was through the lens of anti-imperialism that he looked at the world, at America, and at Buffalo. It provided him with an explanation of the large impersonal forces that shaped the ghetto. And, for him, like many others, the Vietnam War crystallized those ideas. His store became a local resource for antiwar activism and he stocked protest literature, including YAWF’s magazine, The Partisan.64
Crucially, anti-imperialism and opposition to the war served to connect the politics of black liberation with socialist and radical liberal movements, YAWF included. Sostre came to see the importance of an alliance between black militants and white radicals, which the peace movement could cement. “The white militants are our allies in the overall struggle against racist-fascists” he wrote, and that “enlightened segment of the white community is […] a big problem to the rulers.”65 Note the way he deployed the construct “racist-fascist” to create a common enemy against which his radical front was opposed. He would go so far as to write, in December 1967, “the anti-war struggle and the struggle of the Afro-American people against oppression is precisely one and the same struggle.”66
A sense of that common struggle helped Sostre transcend his geographical isolation and gain a sense of connection with the radicals out at SUNY or, for that matter, across the United States or on the other side of the world. Buffalo became one battlefield in a huge war against imperialism. Sostre came to see the Viet Cong as heroic resistance fighters and he became convinced that he was engaged in the same struggle – on one front, as he saw it, of a global campaign: “The brothers in Africa […] are fighting the common enemy on their front; Viet Cong are fighting on their front; the Cubans are fighting on their front […and] we must continue to broaden the fight on our front,” he wrote.67 “I am like a Viet Cong,” he stated on another occasion, “a Black Viet Cong.”68
In his rhetorical flourishes, he collapsed the huge differences between his struggle and those of national liberation movements overseas. Looking back from a safe distance, it is easy to accuse Sostre of indulging in hyperbole, as though he could see no difference between selling books, records, and lithographs from a store in Buffalo and taking up arms against the U.S. military. However, it was above all the idea of the heroic freedom fighter which mattered, and which provided Sostre with a way to represent the political conflicts of the time as a long chain of linked causes. Thus, he wrote of the “inspiration, example and hope which the heroic struggles of the people of Vietnam gives millions of little people like us.” He placed the Civil Rights movement and the urban upheavals of the long, hot summers in the same frame of reference. And, similarly, “[o]n a smaller scale and local level,” he wrote, “the thousands of small anti-war picket lines in hundreds of cities […] who daily brave the assaults, jailings, abuse, coercion and intimidation of the police goons, paid scabs, fascists and brainwashed fools” were “equally important, inspiring and heroic.”69 And, no less, the predicament of the Viet Cong defined his own personal relationship with power – especially after his arrest. It was the Viet Cong’s “courage and determination in resolutely opposing the greatest military power in the world despite their poverty and the many atrocities heaped upon them” which he admired, he wrote in November 1967; theirs was “the living example which I am trying to match,” as he faced persecution at the hands of the state.70
When Sostre referred to the Viet Cong, then, he found a comforting sense of connection wider political struggles. He sought, also, to draw a line of moral equivalence between those guerilla fighters and his attempt to establish an outlet for radical publications and a center for dissident politics in Buffalo. But, when it came down to it, Sostre’s contribution to the struggle was to sell books and pamphlets, records, prints, and statuettes. His understanding of the struggle against imperialism in Buffalo was as a campaign for freedom of speech, to link international solidarity, anti-war activism, a celebration of black culture, and opposition to militarism and the political establishment – all of which converged in the antiwar movement. In that sense, it was the space he created for the expression of ideas which mattered more than any specific contribution to political thinking. His rhetoric enabled him to build a sense of cohesion around his store. He could appeal to students and to local youths alike and that enabled him to achieve something valuable and, in itself, remarkable: he brought those disparate groups together under one roof and around a common set of causes.
For as long as his primary concern remained the Afro-Asian Bookshop, Sostre’s own fight remained rhetorical in nature, as he battled the established order with cultural and ideological means rather than the weapons of revolutionary war. Yet, to judge from his actions, he appeared to become increasingly convinced that his rhetoric described reality. And that led him into dangerous waters.
Sostre began to make headway with his store during the first few months, but outside events proved decisive in its greatest success – and ultimate collapse – in 1967. Relations between the police and the black community in Buffalo, never good, deteriorated dramatically during the summer of 1967. Accusations of police brutality had already sparked riots in Harlem, Watts, and elsewhere – and, in Buffalo, ghetto residents increasingly rejected the authority of disrespectful and abusive officers. Through June, Sostre noted, there were “several minor skermishes [sic] with the police in which neighborhood crowds took arrested persons out of the hands of the police.”71 The situation flew out of control on 27 June after police officers confronted a group of youths. The officers lost their tempers and discipline crumbled. They set about clearing the streets and, as residents put it, became “stick happy.”72 Angry youths responded by bombarding the police with rocks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails. The police replied with batons, buckshot, and a choking fog of tear gas; “they couldn’t keep from using tear gas, man,” one resident said.73 Street-fighting continued and looters moved in on smashed-open stores. Disorder broke out the next day, and the next, and the next, and the pattern of window-breaking, looting, fire-setting, and clashes was repeated. Remarkably, no one was killed, but dozens of people were left injured. As the storm passed, the city remained edgy.74
It was during the tense period leading to the riot that Sostre noticed a growing interest in his store. In six weeks from June to mid-July, he did as much business as the preceding six months – and in the week of the riot, things really took off. Sostre remained open through the early hours, providing “refuge […] for many passers-by” and “freedom fighters” – meaning rioters. As street battles raged, he held forth, “made political hay in denouncing […] police brutality,” and pointed out the relevance of his books. “[A]fter a rousing speech,” he explained, “I would go to the shelf and pick up an appropriate book or pamphlet, like Robert F. Williams’ NegroesWithGuns or [Bill McAdoo’s 1966 article] Pre-CivilWarBlackNationalism or a pamphlet by Malcolm X or LiberatorMagazine, etc. and show them a photo or a drawing or read an appropriate passage.” It was the perfect circumstance to sell radical publications and “[w]ith interest stimulated,” he noted, “I would make several new sales.” Simultaneously, he added, he “create[d] several new freedom fighters.”75
Sostre wanted the Afro-Asian Bookshop to serve as a center for political action and it can only be judged a success by his own standards if it did more than turn a profit. It was perhaps enough that his charismatic style helped widen the horizons of local youths. But his writings seem to indicate that in the excitement of the riot he made a decisive leap. While his prison correspondencewas (perhaps cautiously) ambiguous his claim that he had created “freedom fighters” during the uprising seems to imply that he exhorted youths to join the riot. The police claimed he went even further. According to a police witness, a 15-year old boy, Sostre prepared Molotov cocktails in his basement and urged youths to “get out there and start these fires.” He allegedly said, “don’t mess with none of the soul brothers and sisters”; they should target white-owned businesses. At Sostre’s behest, allegedly, they firebombed the Woodlawn Tavern, opposite the bookstore, the Florida Food Market, and (unsuccessfully) the Pine Grill.76
Such evidence must be treated with extreme skepticism for the young witness would likely have confessed to anything while in the intimidating surroundings of a police station. However, perhaps Sostre went further than he publically admitted. In 1970, in an unguarded letter to his NAACP lawyer Joan Franklin, he made a tantalizing comment. During his time in Buffalo, he explained, he achieved all that he had achieved “in a strange town, without knowing a single soul.” Continuing, he wrote, “Nor was I backed by an organization […] when during the 1967 rebellion in Buffalo I singlehandedly organized a group of brothers and took care of mucho revolutionary bis.”77 In context, it looks very much like shorthand for “revolutionary business.” Was this a private admission that he had orchestrated arson attacks? It is tempting to see it that way, despite the ambiguity. Still, however his comments are interpreted, he clearly welcomed the outcome: when Frank Besag interviewed him anonymously in July 1967, he said the riot had created an opportunity to replace merchants who “suck the neighborhood dry.” Whatever happens, he said, “I don’t see too much of a future now for the white businessman, not the way things stand now.”78 So he hoped, but his ambition to realize black control of the ghetto was not to be. Just weeks later, he was arrested in a combined FBI and police raid on his store. It was the last he would see of the Afro-Asian Bookshop.
Free Martin Sostre!
The growth of antiwar protest and black militancy in the 1960s vexed the conservative political establishment of Buffalo, a city that, as Mark Goldman put it, “has never been kind to radicals.” So far as the city’s Police Commissioner Frank Felicetta was concerned, the impetus for protest was obvious: “joining the issues of civil rights and the war in Vietnam,” he told HUAC in 1968, “is standard Communist practice.” Such demagoguery was a staple of police officers eager, as Frank Donner put it, to “strike in dramatic ways at the radical or ghetto enemy and to play the role of savior.” In Buffalo’s local press (and HUAC), Felicetta found an eager audience.79
Felicetta’s red-baiting was the latest round of a long struggle in the city. There had been communist activity in local factories during the 1930s but, in the postwar era, business and church leaders joined the police, politicians, and HUAC in a clampdown on dissent.80 In 1964, the year Sostre arrived, Buffalo was undergoing one of its periodic anticommunist drives as HUAC scheduled a visit to root out the Maoist Progressive Labor Movement.81 It was also the year of the first “long, hot summer” of urban unrest in the North when riots struck Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and elsewhere – including Rochester. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover reacted by demanding expanded FBI surveillance and closer liaison with police departments.82 It signaled renewed surveillance across America and, locally, Buffalo’s sentinels stirred. As Frank Donner found, the appointment of Michael D’Amico as chief of the local Bureau of Narcotics and Intelligence during those years marked the beginning of an aggressive new campaign.83 Later, Amico’s men would infiltrate the local antiwar movement (including YAWF). In 1967, they would orchestrate the suppression of the Afro-Asian bookshop.
Sostre was a marked man from the beginning. The FBI came calling just weeks after he opened for business; two months later, detectives from the Subversive Squad dropped by. “Nice place you got here, Marty,” they had said, with mock sincerity, before demanding what he was up to “behind this bookstore front.” Sostre insisted he was a reformed man but the policemen were unconvinced: “A law-abiding citizen doesn’t get involved in hate literature and communist propaganda.” When Sostre told them he was free to stock what he chose they ominously retorted, “O.K. Marty, have it your way,” and left.84 In early 1966, after those visits, Sostre told a friend he expected trouble.85
The police turned up the heat in summer, 1967. After the June riot, officers took the opportunity for retribution when a fire broke out at a tavern next to the Afro-Asian Bookshop. As the blaze came under control, they smashed the windows of Sostre’s store and had the firemen turn the hoses on his shelves inside, destroying the books. Gerald Gross gathered donated books and restocked while Sostre put plywood over the windows and pasted up radical articles, cartoons, photographs of the Buffalo uprising, and antiwar publicity. Naturally, it did nothing to mollify the police. People came by the store at night to tear his posters down – police officers, Sostre assumed. Cars carrying “police brass and civilian high officials” kept circling by his store, slowing down as they passed. The authorities were developing an unhealthy interest in his business.86
The police made their move on 14 July. That morning, Detective Alvin Gristmacher of the Narcotics Squad visited convicted armed robber Arto Williams in prison and bailed him out in return for his collaboration in a scheme to frame Sostre.87 At 11 p.m., under police surveillance, Williams entered the bookshop with an undercover state trooper, Lewis Steverson. Once inside, the police alleged, he bought a $15 bag of heroin.88 That allege exchange was the basis of the case against Sostre but it was a pure fabrication. In fact, the heroin made its way into the store in the time-honored fashion. After Williams and Steverson left empty-handed, police officers and an FBI agent burst into the store. Wielding blackjacks, they beat Sostre, his friend Geraldine Robinson, and three customers into submission before scouring the bookshop and confiscating radical literature. Sostre expected them to plant pornography but, instead, a detective reached into his pocket, drew out a glassine packet of heroin: “this is what we’re looking for, Martin,” he said, holding it up for him to see.89
Weighed against police evidence, Sostre’s word counted for little. The judge imposed a heavy bail of $25,000, ensuring he remained locked up before the trial. Meanwhile, the police fed misinformation to the press and, Sostre complained, intimidated defense witnesses, held them on phony charges, beat one into silence, and forced another to flee.90 He faced a “legal lynching – northern style,” he complained to his lawyers.91 He refused to cooperate with the trial and instead used the court to proselytize. “You might as well get the rope and hang this nigger,” he told the judge; “this is what this is, a regular lynching.”92 He called the judge a fascist, a Hitler; he called the police “Gestapo.” During one hearing, the judge gagged Sostre as he railed against the establishment: “You are going to get another Vietnam right here!” and “racist Buffalo is going to burn!”93 It was to be his swansong. He was convicted, received a 31-41 year sentence, and was soon on his way back to Attica, a stop-off before his eventual destination, Green Haven prison.
Sostre had been at liberty for less than three years by the time of his arrest, but he found a new sense of purpose in the political space he created in the Afro-Asian Bookshop. We can only imagine the frustration he must have felt when he found himself back in prison, enduring the same deprivations as before. “I wish I could be out there with you fighting the common foe,” he wrote Jerry Gross in December 1967. Instead, “I feel like a traitor to the cause,” he lamented, “sitting here in jail with all [the] action going on outside.”94 However, whether in jail or not, the same uncompromising militancy fuelled his activism. “I am still following the same tactics,” he wrote Gross in March 1968, “[a]s in the case of the bookshop, I am refusing to allow these fascist goons to coerce and intimidate me.”95 Just as before, he found himself locked into a furious ongoing battle with the prison authorities. And it was while inside prison that he won some of his most important victories and emerged as a figurehead for a national movement demanding free speech and freedom of political conscience.
Soon after arriving at Green Haven prison, Sostre attempted to take a hand in his own legal defense and to offer help to Geraldine Robinson, who had no lawyer of her own. The prison authorities stood in his way. When he drafted an application for a stay of trial for Geraldine and sent it, with two other documents, to his lawyer Joan Franklin, the Warden intercepted his mail and held it back. He summoned Sostre to his office, warned him that he was “practicing law without a law degree,” refused to let him have a letter Franklin had sent to him, confiscated his legal books, and sent him into solitary confinement.96 He was refused permission to write to anyone but his lawyer, who soon became his only human contact, other than the guards. “I am being held in virtual incommunicado” he told Franklin; “I am being systematically cut off from all contacts in the outside world and [even] in the prison.”97
He would spend many days in solitary confinement in the years ahead as he kept up a campaign of resistance against the prison authorities and refused to give up his legal challenge. As a troublemaker, he was singled out for victimization. By the time he appeared in court in New York in October 1969, he had spent 373 consecutive days in solitary and had rarely even stepped outside into the yard because it meant submitting to humiliating internal examinations before leaving and returning to his cell.98 The mistreatment went on for years. At one court hearing in 1973, he reportedly appeared “weak and visibly bruised” from the latest beating.99 On that occasion, he had been taken out of his cell in the solitary confinement building and instructed to submit to a rectal examination. When he refused, he wrote, “a seven-guard goon squad” surrounded him. He told them that “the rectal search was a violation of my constitutional right to privacy and human dignity” – and so they knocked him to the ground and forced him to submit.100
Penned in, under intense pressure, the strain began to show. At times, he unleashed bitter tirades against those who had refused to risk suffering his fate. Why had no black people come to see him in court when he had used the opportunity of the public hearings to condemn discrimination in the justice system? How come he struggled to find anyone to help him locate witnesses or maintain the bookstore while he was in prison? Yet, when James Brown visited the city, “the same blacks would find transportation all the way crosstown to the white man’ club, pay the $5 admission fee; spend another $10-$15 in booze and shake their asses all night.”101 He could find it difficult to understand those who failed, in his view, to measure up to his own standards of political commitment.
In moments of despair, the same sentiment led him to turn on his friends, too. His frustration at the slow legal process led him to lash out at Joan Franklin, and he even wrote Roy Wilkins to complain about her – his “Aunt Jemima NAACP lawyer,” as he put it. It did little more than earn him a reputation as a hothead so far as his legal defense team was concerned. Despite Sostre’s “latest outburst,” Nathaniel Jones wrote Wilkins, Franklin was determinedly pushing ahead with the case regardless.102 Sostre even quarreled with his student friends after they refused to publish an essay in which he advocated terrorism and guerilla warfare. It was one thing for his white friends to urge caution, he wrote, but, as a black man, he faced a desperate struggle for survival in the face of genocide. His was “many times more desperate than your struggle,” he insisted, and it “requires me taking the left fork of the road – the path of armed revolutionary struggle.” Concluding he was “too revolutionary” even for YAWF, he threatened to sever ties with them and sent the essay to Frederick D. Richardson, proprietor of the Afro-American Bookstore in Brooklyn, instead.103 It was pure fantasy, of course. He was locked in prison and would take no part in any armed struggle. His anger measured his sense of isolation and impotence.
And yet it was during those years in prison that Sostre made another of his lasting contributions to civil rights law. The same militancy that caused him to clash with the prison authorities and to burn with frustration as he sat in his cell drove him to take up one of the few weapons left available to him: the law. As early as June 1968 he wrote Joan Franklin to tell her that he would challenge the prison warden’s withholding of mail “under the Civil Rights Act inasmuch as the reason for the obstruction was to conceal acts of racism and racial oppression being perpetrated upon me.”104 He filed his handwritten complaint – under the 1871 Civil Rights Act, in fact – and challenged the warden’s decision to send him into solitary confinement and the confiscation of his legal books and political texts. The eventual landmark decision in Sostre v. McGinnis (1972) ensured that correction officers were, in the future, prohibited from interfering with inmates’ mail.105 As a result of that case in particular, he is remembered in law as a pioneer of the prisoners’ rights movement.106
But there was more to the story, even, than that. Outside the prison walls, a movement grew behind Sostre and the larger cause he came to symbolize. The response to his imprisonment revealed an America that, far from being in thrall to illiberal reaction, was in the process of absorbing and digesting the radical democratic implications of the message to which he and others had given voice.
After Sostre’s arrest, the students of YAWF organized a movement and started to build his reputation. Gerald Gross published Sostre’s correspondence as a special issue of the university philosophical society’s journal to publicize his revolutionary credentials – appearing as Letters From Prison (1968), the booklet foreshadowed George Jackson’s Soledad Brother (1970). In their dedication the editors linked Sostre with leading militants: he “followed in the footsteps of Malcolm X and stands beside Robert F. Williams,” they declared. It helped that Williams had taken an interest and reported it in his newssheet The Crusader that Sostre was a victim of a “vicious campaign” against “ghetto leaders”; Gross, naturally, included a facsimile of the comments in Letters from Prison.107 The Black Panther Party, itself facing an FBI onslaught, embraced Sostre’s cause.108 Don Cox, then a field organizer for the party, went as far as to equate the cause with that of the Panthers’ leaders: “when we demand the freedom of Huey Newton, [and] Bobby Seale,” he told The Activist, “we must also talk about the freedom of Martin Sostre.”109
The Panthers were only part of it, though. The campaign brought Sostre’s plight to the attention of many other activists. When YAWF organized “Free Martin Sostre Week” in October 1969 to coincide with a court appearance, they received the endorsement of a dazzling array of groups, from SDS to Asian-Americans for Action, the Movement for Puerto Rican Independence and the Young Lords, and from groups based in Cleveland, Ohio, which were fighting for the freedom of another black militant, Ahmed Evans. On the morning of 29 October, protesters descended on Foley Square, rallied outside the Federal Court Building, and then took up seats for the hearing. Inspired by their presence, Sostre lectured the judge, pointing to his supporters: they were “the universal forces of liberation,” he told the court; if the law would not free him then, one day, they surely would.110
Increasingly, there was a sympathetic audience for such appeals. As Peniel Joseph noted, Michael Harrington argued in 1969 that “[t]he test of a civil libertarian today […] is whether one is willing to defend the rights of the Black Panthers.”111 He might have added, “and Martin Sostre,” for his case was part of that same story. The implications of the case were apparent early on. Dick Gregory, entertainer, activist, and candidate for President for the Peace and Freedom Party in 1968, appeared at Sostre’s trial to denounce the case as typical of a worrying trend: “police look for a scapegoat in every city in the country where there has been rioting,” he said.112 Many others agreed. William Worthy took up Sostre’s cause and gave it national exposure in some of the best-known black publications in America, including the Afro-American, and Ebony.113 As Sostre’s name entered the mainstream, Jet also came to his defense with an article placing him alongside many of his heroes, including Malcolm X, Robert F. Williams, and Kwame Nkrumah.114 East coast newspapers picked the story up, too. In the Boston Globe, Sostre’s case was compared with the persecution of “several other black liberation fighters and anti-war activists,” including “Huey Newton, Robert F. Williams (in exile), Herman Ferguson, Arthur Harris, Edward Oquenado and many other unnamed heroes.”115 By 1970, Sostre was embedded in the political discourse surrounding civil liberties in America. Writing in the New York Times in the wake of Kent State, Paul Cowan argued that the release of “political prisoners like Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Martin Sostre,” was a necessary precondition for achieving social peace.116 The same year, also in the New York Times, Arthur Miller (who knew something about political witch-hunts) shoehorned Sostre onto his list of writers who were prisoners of conscience: he “has difficulty in writing his own appeals because the prison rations paper and pencils,” Miller explained.117
From a protest movement organized by a small band of local activists, the outcry against Sostre’s incarceration spread. Those who spoke out on behalf of such prisoners did not necessarily hold the same militant views, but they concluded that free speech was too high a price to pay for an illusory political consensus. By the beginning of the 1970s, the mood in America was changing. First Huey Newton and then Bobby Seale were released, and the 1972 acquittal of Angela Davis, Peniel Joseph suggested, appeared to “complete the circle of major Black Power-era legal battles.”118 The case of Martin Sostre remained unfinished business but it, too, found resolution – and the way Sostre won his freedom was telling. In May 1973, Arto Williams exposed the police conspiracy and, although Sostre’s sentence was not reversed, it was revealed as a miscarriage of justice. Amnesty International listed him as a prisoner of conscience, and the case gained added publicity from a 1974 radical Pacific Street film documentary, Frame Up! The Watergate scandal only added to a growing sense of skepticism about the integrity of American institutions and that fueled demand for an investigation into the constitutionality of the FBI’s methods. In 1975, the Church Senate investigation shone light on the Bureau’s counterintelligence operations and, after that, it became harder to justify keeping prisoners like Sostre locked away.119
The prospects for Sostre’s freedom had never been so good. Activists stepped up their campaign with a sit-in protest at New York Governor Carey’s Albany offices and he was deluged with letters appealing for clemency from Angela Davis, Julian Bond, soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, among others. He seemed to have little choice but to grant Sostre a Christmas pardon in 1975. The conditions of his release dictated that he must be employed and so Marie Runyon, a Harlem tenant activist who had been elected to the state legislature (and who had joined the sit-in at Carey’s offices), hired him as an aide, promising to pay his wages out of her own salary.120
There, in that moment, was a victory that went further than Sostre’s personal deliverance from prison and reflected a dramatic change in American political culture: Sostre, denounced in Senate hearings as a subversive threat to the United States in 1968 and persecuted by the FBI, was officially employed by a representative in the state legislature – herself a Harlem activist – seven years later; he was supported by the press as well as activists, and even received support from a former attorney general.
“One Continuous Struggle”
The America Martin Sostre found when he finally walked free from prison was much changed, yet the future posed complex challenges. Through the 1980s, as Manning Marable wrote, “American society became more thoroughly integrated in terms of race relations than at any previous point in its history” but these were also the years of “a new nadir” of rising poverty.121 This legacy was the “lasting paradox” of the Sixties, Van Gosse suggested: America became a more democratic society in the years that followed but it also became more economically unequal.122 Sostre would confront those problems in the years after his release, as he devoted himself to tenants’ rights campaigns and community activism in New York and New Jersey. As he told a New York Times reporter, a week after his release, his fight for justice was not over. All that has happened is that the “battlefield has changed from the dungeons, the prisons, to the street,” he said. “This is just one continuous struggle.”123
Martin Sostre’s journey through the 1960s cut across so many of the currents of those times that it makes the task of defining his place in recent history a complex one. It is possible to see him equally as a pioneering prisoners’ rights activist, a radical autodidact and intellectual, a latter-day advocate of the old “militant Booker-Tism,” as Buffalo’s answer to Malcolm X, or as a “hip capitalist,” who marketed Black Power culture to disaffected youths. His contributions to radical culture touched prisons, a local black community, anti-war activism, and a national movement for free speech. That richness is part of his significance and why he matters to historians of the Sixties. He reminds us of the connectedness of black struggles through time, through the walls dividing ghetto and prison – and across the lines of race, which often seemed to separate traditions of activism.
Sostre suffered great privations during his struggles but, although it cannot always have been obvious, it turned out that he was swimming with the tide of history. It was, nevertheless, an irony that Sostre’s greatest weapons were those thrust upon him under the existing order: the law, business enterprise, and an appeal to liberal rights. The lesson of Martin Sostre’s activism, then, is that what lay behind so much of the rhetoric of revolutionary change during the Sixties was, fundamentally, an assertion of the individual rights and freedoms arguably promised by the Constitution of the United States, and a demand for the application of the principle of such rights universally. In that sense, what Sostre helped bring about was a change within American political culture. In prison, as proprietor of the Afro-Asian Bookshop, back in jail again, and in the years after, he continuously campaigned for the space to ask difficult questions, put conscience before patriotic conformism, and to insist on respect for human rights. Ironically, those liberties were often denied in some of the regimes Sostre professed to admire – in the People’s Republic of China, for example. The tragedy and disgrace, of course, was that he had to fight hard to win them in America.
As Sostre devoted himself to tenants’ rights campaigns and community activism in New York and New Jersey in the years after his release, he would wrestle with the problems of accelerating inner city poverty. In some respects, he found himself in familiar territory as he set about his work in communities thrown back on their own resources. His blend of radical politics and self-help never seemed so relevant. By the late 1980s, he had joined with a colleague, Sandy Shevack, to form a social enterprise, the Juvenile Education and Awareness Program. Over the next few years he and Skevak set about renovating a former crack den to transform it into a community day-care center and classroom.124 Even after all those years, he still retained an ability to upset the authorities with his dissident political views: he wound up in the middle of local furor when he was found proselytizing about the political situation in Nicaragua to some high school student volunteers. There were no calls from the FBI this time, though.125
Two years later, in 1991, a reporter from the Bergen County Record caught up with him as he was putting the finishing touches to the project. “They say they are hoping their labors will show people in the neighborhood that they can change their hard-scrabble living conditions – and society’s injustices,” the reporter wrote, “if they are willing to fight back.” Sostre took a break from building cots to show the reporter into the classroom. “One picture is worth 1,000 words. One deed is worth 1,000 pictures. And you can’t get any more concrete than this,” he said, motioning around the room – freshly decorated, as it happened, with political posters promoting solidarity with Nicaragua and teaching about rainforest conservation.126
Abu-Jamal, Mumia. Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. The USA. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2009.
Alexander, Robert Jackson. International Trotskyism, 1929-1985: A Documented Analysis of the Movement. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991.
Bakonyi, Linda B. “Putting His Politics into Action,” The Record (Bergen County, NJ), 19 May 1993.