They Criminalized Him As A Dropout, Then As An Educator

martin sostre
Zain Murdock
June 6, 2024

Black men born in the late 1960s who didn’t finish high school had a 60% chance of going to prison. If they were born in 1975, that chance jumped to 70%. Martin Sostre was born in 1923. And after dropping out of school in the 10th grade, he was arrested on drug charges in 1952.

Poverty, learning disabilities, not finishing high school, and working-class jobs are often cited as predictors for incarceration. But Sostre’s life story also forces us to ask what it means to be criminalized — and what it means to be educated.

From racist, ahistorical teaching materials to harsh punishments facilitating the school-to-prison pipeline, the U.S. education system is systemically anti-Black. And Sostre wasn’t just likely to be incarcerated when he was legally less educated. He was criminalized after becoming an educator himself.

He became a prison lawyer, winning huge legal victories against censorship, solitary confinement, restricted religious freedoms, and more. After his release from Attica, he opened a bookstore in Buffalo, New York, offering radical literature to the people. Police raided it, and arrested him again for a false drug charge.

Sostre was released from prison again in 1976, after being bound and gagged for speaking in court. In prison, he racked up even more victories for incarcerated people, and gained international recognition. His story reminds us what happens when criminality is defined as Blackness — and how Black revolutionary education can be used to resist it.