Martin Sostre had been appealing his case since the day he was convicted in 1968. He tried to hand his legal appeal to the judge on his way out of the courtroom. Five years later, after numerous protests and petitions, the state’s key witness—a police informant who helped to frame Sostre on heroin possession charges—finally prepared to recant his testimony. But between Sostre’s solitary confinement cell and the courtroom in Buffalo stood a group of seven guards insisting he submit to a mandatory rectal “examination.” Sostre resisted, as he had for years on principle, arguing that these were attempts by the state to destroy the last vestiges of his personhood and spirit. For this refusal, he was beaten and subsequently charged with assault himself. The attack was the first of eleven he sustained during his final three years of incarceration.
Sostre was a revolutionary thinker, organizer, and community educator who outlined a radical vision of individual freedom and collective liberation from conditions of oppression and captivity. With clarity of purpose, he sought to create an egalitarian society free of coercion in which all people would enjoy the world in common. As an internationalist, he understood white supremacy, capitalism, militarism, and colonialism as interlocking global systems of power and regarded prison as a concentrated manifestation of the repressive state. Dismantling these structures, he believed, was necessary to bring a new world into being. At the height of his prominence during the 1970s, Sostre was one of the most well-known political prisoners in the country. On August 12, 2015, Sostre passed away at the age of ninety-two. In accordance with his wishes, his family did not publicly announce his death. Four years later, the New York Times belatedly eulogized him as a “pioneering fighter for prisoners’ rights.” But Sostre was also a key progenitor of contemporary Black anarchism and abolitionism, even though his contributions to these areas are virtually unknown today.
Now at the centennial of Sostre’s life, it is important we understand his ideas and commitments through his actions. “A dynamic deed is something that really mobilizes people,” he said. One of the central principles of his unique political ideology, developed during nearly two decades in prison, was the relationship between collective struggle for liberation and each person’s fight to secure their own bodily autonomy and individual freedom. “The struggle for liberation,” he explained, “ultimately boils down to the individual exertion of his or her faculties to the fullest extent.” Sostre considered individual resistance to state violence the most concentrated form of revolutionary struggle, making his protests against sexual assault in prison and his assertions of bodily autonomy simultaneously necessary for his own personal freedom as well as symbolic of a worldwide struggle. His refusal to submit to state-sanctioned sexual assaults remains one of his most significant and lasting legacies. It is especially urgent, as millions held captive in prison and jail face similar routinized violations today. To appropriately assess and learn from Sostre’s life, we must recognize the relationship between the freedom of one person—or a single act of resistance—and the collective liberation of all oppressed people.
Sostre was first politicized while incarcerated during the 1950s. He taught himself law, studied philosophy and history, and began practicing yoga. In 1957 he sued New York’s parole board for its all-white racial composition. Soon he and other Muslims in the state initiated the first organized prison litigation movement, arguing for their right to worship, to access the Qur’an, and to engage with religious advisors in person and through the mail. For his activism, he served the maximum of his six-to-twelve-year sentence, nearly the final half in solitary confinement.
Following his release in 1964, Sostre moved to Buffalo, where he worked at a steel mill and saved money to open a radical bookstore. Along with those in Detroit and Philadelphia, Sostre’s Afro-Asian Book Shop was one of the earliest examples of a Black-owned, anti-capitalist, community-oriented bookstore. Student activists from nearby universities and local youth on Buffalo’s East Side lingered in Sostre’s store, reading books and pamphlets by Malcolm X, Fidel Castro, Mao Zedong, Robert F. Williams, and other revolutionaries.