Martin Ramirez Sostre was a revolutionary anarchist political prisoner and one of the most successful jailhouse lawyers of the twentieth century. He outlined a radical vision of individual freedom and collective liberation from captivity while winning rights for religious freedom, political expression, and due process regarding censorship and solitary confinement for imprisoned people. He regarded the prison as a concentrated form of state repression, and the considered the so-called free world outside as merely “minimum security.” Dismantling both the prison and the state, he believed, was necessary to bring about an egalitarian society free of all forms of domination and coercion.
Born in East Harlem on March 20, 1923 to Puerto Rican parents, Sostre was exposed to a range of Black radical thought and revolutionary anti-imperialism during his youth. He saw Paul Robeson speak on street corners and frequented Lewis Michaux’s National Memorial Bookstore on 125th Street. He recalled his father being connected with the Communist-affiliated Spanish-speaking workers’ club, El Club Julio Mella, named for the assassinated Cuban revolutionary. He left school after the 10th grade and was eventually drafted into World War II at age nineteen. He was eventually dishonorably discharged in 1946, arrested on drug charges, and sentenced to 6-12 years in 1952.
He was politicized in prison, teaching himself law, history, and yoga, and eventually joining the Nation of Islam. In the 1960s, he became a leader in an organized prison litigation movement by incarcerated Muslims to secure constitutional protections to religious practice inside. He and other jailhouse lawyers creatively used Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 to claim religious discrimination by those acting under state authority. By 1964, these cases had secured important rulings such as Sostre v. McGinnis in New York and Cooper v. Pate in Illinois, the latter of which decidedly won incarcerated people constitutional rights in what was been described by some scholars as the Brown v. Board of the prisoners’ rights movement.
After serving the entire twelve years of his sentence, the final five in solitary confinement as punishment for his activism, Sostre moved to Buffalo upon his release. There, he worked days at Bethlehem Steel and saved his money, eventually opening the city’s first revolutionary bookstore in 1965: the Afro-Asian Bookshop. Like Michaux’s bookstore of his childhood, he allowed people to sit and read, returning each day until they had finished the book. The bookstore attracted student radicals as well as neighborhood youth. During the rebellions of 1967, it became a refuge and base. Several weeks after the uprising, police and the FBI raided Sostre’s shop and framed him with a $15 bag of heroin using an informant.
Sostre faced an exorbitant bail and languished in jail for eight months before being forced to represent himself when a judge suddenly rushed the case to trial. There, he challenged potential white jurors about their feelings on integration. “I don’t see any black faces" (there were no potential black jurors), he said. “I want to be tried by my peers.” He spoke out against the twin evils of racism and militarism before eventually being handcuffed and gagged a year before it happened to Bobby Seale in Chicago. Sostre tried to hand his legal appeal to the judge on his way out of the courtroom, raised his fist, and told the audience to “keep resisting.”
Over the next eight years, Sostre appealed his case while also winning landmark legal victories over political censorship, solitary confinement, and the rights of prisoners to due process. He also organized chapters of the Black Panther Party and prisoners’ labor unions, established radical study groups and lending libraries, and published several revolutionary newspapers. During the final years of his incarceration, he identified as a revolutionary anarchist and refused to shave his ¼ inch beard or submit to mandatory rectal “searches.” For refusing these state-sanctioned sexual assaults, he was beaten nearly a dozen times. Finally, after having been named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and with the support of defense committees across the world, his sentence was commuted by Governor Hugh Carey on Christmas Day 1975.
“For me this is a continuous struggle whether I am on the outside or the inside,” Sostre announced. “If the battlefield changes, my struggle never changes.” He continued to organize, leading tenant's rights efforts in Harlem and co-founding a group called the Juvenile Education and Awareness Project (JEAP) with Sandy Shevack in New Jersey. JEAP combined jobs training with political education and youth mentorship, and over the course of nearly a decade, the group employed nearly 100 teenagers to renovated five buildings, transforming these abandoned properties into a community center, daycare, and apartments rented for below market price.
Martin Sostre passed away on August 12, 2015 at the age of 92. At the height of his international prominence, radical attorney William Kunstler remembered Sostre as a “Promethean figure, a hero to other inmates and to ourselves. He should not even have been in jail, but while he was, the state did all it could to destroy what it could not destroy – his indomitable will.”