Scholars of law, history and African-American studies gain a uniquely in-depth look into the fraught case of activist Martin Sostre with access to enhanced NAACP Papers curated in ProQuest History Vault.
Shortly after midnight on July 15, 1967, just two weeks after a week-long riot on Buffalo’s predominantly black eastside, a group of Buffalo police, New York State troopers, and a federal law enforcement official entered the Afro-Asian Bookstore owned by Martin Sostre.
No one in the store at the time agreed on what happened next. Whether the police attacked Sostre or Sostre attacked them, at the end of the raid, the police arrested Sostre, his coworker Geraldine Robinson, and three others. They charged Sostre with inciting persons to riot, arson, possession and sale of narcotics, and resisting arrest. A grand jury later indicted Sostre on the narcotics charge and for second degree assault.
Over the course of his initial criminal trial, Sostre repeatedly argued that the police were framing him in order to close down his bookshop, which specialized in radical political literature. In March 1968, Sostre was sentenced to 30-41 years in prison. In June, he was placed in solitary confinement at Green Haven Prison, where he remained for 13 months.
The case of Martin Sostre is just one of many important and interesting criminal justice cases reproduced and enhanced for simplified discoverability in the NAACP Papers collection from ProQuest History Vault.
The documents from the Sostre criminal trial, People v. Sostre, include trial transcripts that indicate a tense courtroom, and materials from five cases initiated by Sostre while in jail. The files also contain correspondence between Sostre and NAACP attorney Joan Franklin. The NAACP represented Sostre’s coworker Geraldine Robinson and in May 1968, Sostre began to correspond with Franklin.
The NAACP initially saw eye-to-eye with Sostre. In a July 1968 memorandum from Franklin to NAACP General Counsel Robert L. Carter, Franklin wrote that Buffalo police appeared to be on a campaign “to destroy … the most vocal black militant in the Buffalo area,” and she compared Sostre’s case to police targeting of other African American radicals like Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, and LeRoi Jones. Franklin further argued that it made sense for the NAACP to get involved on behalf of Sostre in order to stop “in legal fashion politically motivated attacks on the black community” (1).
Two years later, however, Sostre accused Franklin of “turning to the right” and in July 1970 he requested that she withdraw from his case (2). In August 1970, Sostre wrote to NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins and accused the NAACP of abandoning the “black masses” and “aiding the white racist oppressor” (3).
Despite this letter from Sostre, the NAACP continued to collect documents on the case, including materials when Sostre’s claims of a set-up eventually came to light. In 1973, police informant Arto Williams admitted that, in order to get out of his own legal troubles, he had agreed to help police frame Sostre.
Not only is the Sostre case a captivating research topic in itself, it brings up many important issues such as discrimination in the criminal justice system, police brutality, the riots of the 1960s, and the relationship between the NAACP and radical individuals and organizations, all of which can be explored with the expertly curated NAACP Papers and Black Freedom Struggle collections in ProQuest History Vault.
Another perspective on the Sostre case can be found in the video “Frame-up! The Imprisonment of Martin Sostre,” included in Alexander Street’s Black Studies in Video. Originally produced in 1974 by Pacific Street Films and directed by Joel Sucher, this documentary includes a discussion of Sostre’s appeal and the evidence presented by Arto Williams.
Researchers can gain additional insights on the Sostre case from extensive complementary resources such as ProQuest Historical Newspapers, ebooks, journals, and dissertations.
A search on Martin Sostre in ProQuest Historical Newspapers leads to 178 results from newspapers such as The New York Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Tribune, Baltimore Afro-American, and New York Amsterdam News. And, the case is also mentioned in the ebook Shaping Constitutional Law: The Example of Prisoners’ Rights from ProQuest.
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1. ProQuest History Vault, NAACP Papers: The NAACP's Major Campaigns--Legal Department Files, People v. Sostre possession of narcotics case, general case material, March-July 1968, Folder ID 100243-029-0711
2. ProQuest History Vault, NAACP Papers: The NAACP's Major Campaigns--Legal Department Files, People v. Sostre possession of narcotics case, general case material, January 1960-December 1972, Folder ID 100243-030-0492 and Folder ID 100243-030-0600
3. ProQuest History Vault, NAACP Papers: The NAACP's Major Campaigns--Legal Department Files, People v. Sostre possession of narcotics case, general case material, July-October 1970, Folder ID 100243-030-0600
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