The Crime of Martin Sostre

The Crime of Martin Sostre
by Vincent Copeland
1970 / 210 pages
rating – 7.5  (content 10 )

This is a rant and a rave.   I’m ranting at the system and raving about the book.  This is an older work ( it’s actually history at this point),  and it was very interesting to read.  The only reason I even know about it and was curious is because Martin is the husband of a good on-line friend.  (Thank you,  friend!)

On one level the book is the ultimate vindication of Martin Sostre – it finally tells more of his real defense for his real crime than any other place I know of – but I’m sure there’s more info out there (see below).   Sostre was framed for one crime,  selling a very small amount of drugs,  because his real crime of providing politically threatening literature, was almost unenforceable – certainly un-convictable – because it is constitutionally protected!    Yet he was sentenced to 41 (forty-one!) years in prison.  –  Was there something else going on,  per chance?

You betcha.   The background “crime” which scared the power structure (from congressmen and  judges to the lowly henchmen on the beat) but the jurists never heard,  was the dissemination of information unpalatable to them.   (Imo,  too bad – freedom of speech is not and has never been about sharing chocolate cake recipes at the local community pot-luck!)

Copeland’s book shows the complete abrogation of  equal justice and fairness, to say nothing of  common dignity and  humane treatment.  And Sostre didn’t get that “cruel and unusual”  sentence along with it’s extra-credit enforcement (massive solitary confinement) for breaking drug laws – even if he were guilty.  It wasn’t about that.

I must say that I was very glad I knew before opening this book that Martin Sostre has been out of prison for many years  (whew!) because Copeland added a certain amount of suspense to the telling.

Last year, 2011,  I read three books about 20th century Black history in the US.  (The following inks are to my reviews.)  The first was The Warmth of Other Sons:  The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration  by Isabel Wilkerson  which pretty well outlines the depth and scope of northern racism between 1880 (or so) and the 1960s.  This book sets the stage for the later injustices.    The second book was Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle  which highlighted one upper middle class black man pursuing the American Dream and what that cost him in the city of Detroit (ca. 1920s and ’30s) .   The third one was  The Savage City: Race, Murder and a City on the Edge by T.J. English in the same general time and place as the Martin Sostre horrors and it certainly works to lend credence to all that Copeland as well as English say about the racist law enforcement and justice systems in the US.

The books work together in a hugely powerful way to reinforce all I know but often don’t realize about the reality of Black life in the US.  The Sostre case involved “cruel and unusual” punishment and unfortunately he was not alone!  Two of the books above paint the more over-all picture while the other two provide insights into individual cases.   I recommend them all.

Martin Sostre   (Wiki site)

The Buffalonian  (history – but 1976?)

The New York Review of Books   (letter to the editor – March ’72)

Federal Appeal –   (1970)

News clipping from 1974  (Ann Arbor Sun)

There are lots more sources and info available in various places –  including the prison letters in a couple of versions –  but these are in Sage and JSTOR and university holdings to which I have no access.


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