[Pnews] The FBI's War on Black Bookstores

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Feb 20 16:28:22 EST 2018


  The FBI's War on Black Bookstores

  * Joshua Clark Davis
    <https://www.theatlantic.com/author/joshua-clark-davis/>- Feb 19, 2018

*/The most notable example (omitted from this piece) is the imprisonment 
of Martin Sostre who ran a radical bookstore in Buffalo, NY. A 1972 
article about him follows this new piece. Sostre /**/embraced ideas like 
Black Muslimism 
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_American_Muslims>, Black 
nationalism <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_nationalism>, 
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proletarian_internationalism>, and 
anarchism <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchism>. He fought his 1967 
case from an Attica prison cell for years and is unfortunately rarely 
recognized as a victim of Cointelpro. - Ed/*


In the spring of 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover announced to his 
agents that COINTELPRO, the counter-intelligence program established in 
1956 to combat communists, should focus on preventing the rise of a 
“Black ‘messiah’” who sought to “unify and electrify the militant black 
nationalist movement.” The program, Hoover insisted, should target 
figures as ideologically diverse as the Black Power activist Stokely 
Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), Martin Luther King Jr., and Nation of 
Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.

Just a few months later, in October 1968, Hoover penned another memo 
warning of the urgent menace of a growing Black Power movement, but this 
time the director focused on the unlikeliest of public enemies: black 
independent booksellers.

In a one-page directive, Hoover noted with alarm a recent “increase in 
the establishment of black extremist bookstores which represent 
propaganda outlets for revolutionary and hate publications and culture 
centers for extremism.” The director ordered each Bureau office to 
“locate and identify black extremist and/or African-type bookstores in 
its territory and open separate discreet investigations on each to 
determine if it is extremist in nature.” Each investigation was to 
“determine the identities of the owners; whether it is a front for any 
group or foreign interest; whether individuals affiliated with the store 
engage in extremist activities; the number, type, and source of books 
and material on sale; the store’s financial condition; its clientele; 
and whether it is used as a headquarters or meeting place.”

Perhaps most disturbing, Hoover wanted the Bureau to convince African 
American citizens (presumably with pay or through extortion) to spy on 
these stores by posing as sympathetic customers or activists. 
“Investigations should be instituted on new stores when opened and you 
should recognize the excellent target these stores represent for 
penetration by racial sources,” he ordered. Hoover, in short, expected 
agents to adopt the ruthless tactics of espionage and falsification they 
deployed against civil-rights and Black Power activists, and now use 
them against black-owned bookstores.

Hoover’s October 1968 Memo targeting black bookstores.

Hoover’s memo offers us a troubling glimpse of a forgotten dimension of 
COINTELPRO, one that has escaped notice for decades: the FBI’s war on 
black-bookstores. In addition to Hoover’s memo, I uncovered documents 
detailing Bureau surveillance of black bookstores in a least half a 
dozen cities across the U.S. in conducting research for my book, /From 
Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs/ 
At the height of the Black Power movement, the FBI conducted 
investigations of such black booksellers as Lewis Michaux and Una Mulzac 
in New York City, Paul Coates in Baltimore (the father of/The Atlantic/ 
national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates), Dawud Hakim and Bill Crawford 
in Philadelphia, Alfred and Bernice Ligon in Los Angeles, and the owners 
of the Sundiata bookstore in Denver. And this list is almost certainly 
far from complete, because most FBI documents pertaining to currently 
living booksellers aren’t available to researchers through the federal 
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The FBI’s reports on black booksellers were highly invasive but often 
mundane. The FBI reports note phone calls from Coates’s number to his 
former comrades in the Black Panther Party—but also to Viking Press and 
the American Booksellers Association. Agents in New York reported an 
undercover source’s questionable claim that Lewis Michaux “was 
responsible for about 75 percent of the antiwhite material” distributed 
in Harlem, but another report conceded that he was “no longer very 
active in Black Nationalist activity as he is getting old.” In 
Philadelphia, agents traced a car’s license plate at a Republic of New 
convention to Dawud Hakim, but not long afterwards they quoted sources 
stating that the RNA was “now defunct in the Philadelphia area” and that 
Hakim “has not shown interest in any Black Nationalist Activity.”

While perhaps not surprising, it is deeply disturbing that Hoover and 
the FBI would carry out sustained investigations of black-owned 
independent bookstores across the country as part of COINTELPRO’s larger 
attacks on the Black Power movement. But Hoover’s order that agents 
track these stores’ customers represented not just an attack on black 
activists, but also an absolute contempt for America’s stated values of 
freedom of speech and expression. Any citizen who stepped into a 
black-owned bookstore, it seemed, risked being investigated by federal 
law enforcement.

To be sure, many black bookstores did have direct connections to Black 
Power activists. Quite a few black booksellers themselves participated 
in Black Power organizations, even if those organizations didn’t operate 
their stores. But more often the connections between the bookstores and 
the movement weren’t institutional, but intellectual and informal. 
Customers sought out copies of such titles as /The Autobiography of 
Malcolm X/ or Eldridge Cleaver’s /Soul on Ice/, which black booksellers 
gladly sold them. The rapid proliferation of black-owned bookstores in 
the late 1960s and early 1970s signaled African Americans’ growing 
appetite for black political and historical literature and reading 
materials on Africa.

Black-owned bookstores also sold works by authors who were not formally 
associated with Black Power organizations, including critically 
acclaimed writers such as James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, as well 
as street-literature favorites like Iceberg Slim, author of the novel 
/Pimp/. Black bookstores weren’t fronts assigned by activist 
organizations to distribute political propaganda. They were independent 
businesses serving black people’s growing appetite for books by and 
about black people.

The Drum and Spear Bookstore in Washington, D.C., seems to have drawn 
more scrutiny from the Bureau’s agents than any other black bookstore. 
Established by veterans of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating 
Committee, the famed direct-action civil rights organization founded in 
1960, the store opened in late spring 1968 just weeks after an uprising 
devastated the District following the assassination of Martin Luther 
King. The store was an especially convenient and frequent target for 
federal law enforcement, both because of its ties to prominent figures 
in the Black Power movement, and its location in the Columbia Heights 
neighborhood, less than three miles away from the FBI’s headquarters.

The Bureau launched its surveillance of Drum and Spear after sources 
sighted Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) visiting the store in its 
first weeks of business. Hoover’s office soon ordered that the 
investigation of the store “should be intensified” beyond occasional 
visits by agents and expanded to cultivating customers, employees, and 
people who attended meetings at Drum and Spear as undercover sources. 
 From 1968 until the store’s closing in 1974, the Bureau compiled nearly 
500 pages of investigative files on Drum and Spear. Plainclothes agents 
who visited the store aroused employees’ suspicions when they sat in 
parked cars in front of the business for hours. In another incident, two 
men wearing suits who appeared to be federal agents visited Drum and 
Spear and asked to purchase the store’s entire inventory of Mao’s Little 
Red Book. Agents’ reports meticulously detailed the store’s contents, 
relating that its roughly 4,000 copies of 500 titles were divided into 
five sections—African Works, Works of the American Negro, Fiction, Third 
World, and Children’s Works—while posters and photos of H. Rap Brown, 
Carmichael, Huey Newton, and Che Guevara decorated its walls.

The 1971 Drum and Spear Catalog.

Hoover was right about one thing: black bookstores were on the rise by 
the end of the 1960s. As late as 1966, black-owned bookstores operated 
in fewer than a dozen American cities, and most of them struggled to 
stay in business. Within just a few years, however, the number of stores 
had skyrocketed. Dozens of new stores opened throughout the country in 
the final years of the ‘60s, roughly tripling their numbers since the 
start of the decade. As /The New York Times/ reported in 1969, “A surge 
of book-buying is sweeping through Black communities across the 
country.” What had been about a dozen black bookstores operating in the 
mid-1960s grew to over 50 by the early 1970s, and around 75 by the 
middle of the decade.

In Hoover’s eyes, black-owned bookstores represented a coordinated 
network of hate-spewing extremists. His clumsy invocation of the phrase 
“African-type bookstores” betrayed his lack of understanding of 
pan-Africanism, a philosophy that people of African descent around the 
world should unite in pursuit of shared political and social goals. To 
Hoover, radical anti-government organizations actively fomented black 
Americans’ growing fascination with Africa in the hopes of using it as a 
weapon against whites. But Hoover grossly mischaracterized the organic 
groundswell of popular interest in African history, culture, and 
politics spreading throughout African American communities.

As with much of COINTELPRO, Hoover took a model of counter-intelligence 
developed to combat the rigidly organized and centralized Communist 
Party of the United States of America and applied it to a much looser 
and decentralized array of Black Power groups emerging across the 
country. The CPUSA for instance, had operated a series of official 
bookstores carrying party literature in cities across the U.S., which 
the FBI had monitored since at least the 1930s.

The FBI appears to have wound down its surveillance of black bookstores 
by the middle of the 1970s, in the wake of Hoover’s death and the formal 
conclusion of COINTELPRO. As the Black Power movement declined in the 
late 1970s, so did black bookstores, and their numbers significantly 
dwindled by the start of the ‘80s (before experiencing a resurgence in 
the early 1990s). Looking back, it’s worth asking if the Bureau’s 
investigations may have undermined the viability of these black-owned 
businesses, creating undue stress for owners already struggling to make 
ends meet and scaring away customers who wanted to avoid any encounters 
with law-enforcement officials.

Indeed, the FBI’s war against black bookstores represents a sad chapter 
in the history of law enforcement in the U.S., a time when federal 
agents dispensed with all notions of freedom of speech as they targeted 
black entrepreneurs and their customers for buying and selling 
literature they deemed politically subversive.

“It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money,” Philadelphia bookseller Dawud Hakim 
lamented in 1971, having learned that that he was himself a target of 
the Bureau’s misguided surveillance campaign. “We are trying to educate 
our people about their history and culture. The FBI should be spending 
their time instead on organized crime and dope peddlers.”


  The Case of Martin Sostre | by Gerald J. Gross

Gerald J. Gross <http://www.nybooks.com/contributors/gerald-j-gross/>- 
March 23, 1972 <http://www.nybooks.com/issues/1972/03/23/>

/To the Editors/:

…The case of Martin Gonzalez Sostre, an Afro-Puerto Rican revolutionary 
writer, has not received the attention from either the media or the 
public that it deserves…. Martin Sostre was the owner of the Afro-Asian 
Bookstore in the black ghetto-colony of Buffalo, New York. On July 14, 
1967, following the civil disorders of the summer, the police raided the 
store and arrested Sostre on narcotics, riot, arson, and assault 
charges. To those who knew Sostre and the political nature of the books 
and pamphlets he sold, it was obvious that a classical frame-up was 
underway, Its social purpose was clear: to appease “Mr. Backlash,” 
conservative white public opinion that was demanding its “nigger to the 
tree” rather than an amelioration of the unconscionable living 
conditions in the ghetto.

Of course, Mr. Sostre was afforded his right to a fair trial. The fact 
that the jury was all white, mostly middle- and upper-middle-class 
suburbanites from de facto segregated neighborhoods, must have been 
reassuring to the defendant who was heard to remark, “This is a stacked 
jury of white racists.” Sostre was convicted and sentenced to serve 
forty-one years and thirty days behind bars, which he is now doing in 
what he calls the “Walkill Concentration Camp.”

What has happened since could be put into Kafkaesque nightmares: Sostre 
was put into solitary confinement for thirteen months at Green Haven 
Prison (where he witnessed a fellow prisoner beaten to death by guards), 
government agencies began systematic surveillance of his supporters, and 
a co-defendant, Ms. Geraldine Robinson, was put in jail for two years.

Sostre has recently won two landmark legal cases involving prisoner 
rights: /Sostre/ v. /Rockefeller/ and /Sostre/ v. /Otis/. According to 
Sostre, these decisions constitute “a resounding defeat for the 
establishment who will now find it exceedingly difficult to torture with 
impunity the thousands of captive black (and white) political prisoners 
illegally held in their concentration camps.” In earlier legal activity, 
Sostre secured religious rights for Black Muslim prisoners and also 
eliminated (in the words of Federal Judge Constance Motley) some of the 
more “outrageously inhuman aspects of solitary confinement in some of 
the state prisons.”

At present Sostre is struggling with the courts for a new trial (a key 
prosecution witness reversed his testimony) and, if this is granted, 
Sostre may get out on bail. Only hitch: no bail money, Sostre is now 
working on a book (which he says will be a “real smoker”) but he cannot 
count on this to provide bail money, at least not for a while.

Anyone who would like to make a tax-deductible contribution or who could 
do something creative to aid the cause (a benefit concert, etc.) should 
contact the address set forth below.

Gerald J. Gross

Ms. Geraldine Robinson

c/o Vanguard Defense Committee

for Martin Sostre

P.O. Box 839, Ellicott Station

Buffalo, New York 14205

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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