According to his New York Times obituary, Epton, a Harlem native, was a firebrand even early in his youth. "Even as a high school student," the obituary reads, "he demonstrated for civil rights and helped organize unions. He was drafted into the Army and served in the Korean War." Later, he became an electrician and gravitated towards the Progressive Labor Movement and its activities.
Background to the Epton court case
On July 16, 1964, NYPD officer Thomas Gilligan shot and killed a 15-year-old African-American student, James Powell. In response the people of Harlem started days of demonstrations that intensified into street violence.
PL, with Epton among its leadership, hung posters reading Wanted For Murder – Gilligan the Cop throughout the city, causing the city administration to declare a state of emergency in the city, prohibiting public demonstration. While most of the reformist leaders went along with the ban, Epton and the Harlem branch of PL called for a peaceful rally on 125th Street for July 25. When they began to march, Epton was arrested. Charged with criminal anarchy, he was tried and found guilty, receiving a one-year prison sentence.
The trial was postponed to August 2, 1965. There was talk in the papers that the riot's circumstances had been that of "a social revolution – a demand by a minority for equal rights" (N.Y. Times, July 7, 1965).
Epton wrote a militant speech he made to the court at his sentencing hearing. Progressive Labor Party published it as a pamphlet on February 2, 1966. In part, the text reads:
|“||You didn't have to have a trial to "prove" these things. All you had to do was ask me and I would have told you – Yes! There's no problem – There's no secret – whatever we write and publish we sign with our name, address and phone number. We are willing and not afraid to put out ideas in the public view. ... Did you, at any time, think that we would deny what we do and have done? Did you think that we would deny what we hold to be true and what we believe in? Do you think that all people in this country have been so "brain dirtied" and have been so thoroughly corrupted that they are afraid to express an independent thought – to stand up for what they believe and fight for it? Well, there are people in this country who are governed by ideas that do not come out of the pages of the Times and the Daily News, and their numbers grow every day. And I am sure that this so-called "trial" has opened up many more eyes. Whatever we do and whatever we believe in – we do and believe that it is in the interest of the people of this country; And yes – we are proud to have done it and to be doing it and we stand behind our actions four-square!||”|
The New York Times article notes: "A grand jury indicted Mr. Epton on charges that his speeches kept the 1964 riot going. In one, which was secretly recorded by an undercover officer assigned to monitor the Progressive Labor Party, he said, "We're going to have to kill a lot of cops, a lot of the judges, and we'll have to go against their army."
Epton breaks with PL
Epton was eventually released on bail while he appealed his conviction. Meanwhile, Progressive Labor began to change its line on the national question, the developments of which Epton apparently found politically unacceptable. They criticized the concept of "revolutionary" nationalism and specifically criticized the call for "national liberation" made by the Vietnamese Communist Party and the Vietnamese NLF.
After Epton left PL, he was involved in new attempts to unite revolutionary Marxists in the U.S. in the early 1970s. The appeal of his conviction was eventually rejected and he was forced to serve the remainder of that year in prison. However, such activity as Epton had engaged in was changed back to constitutional a mere two years after Epton's imprisonment. The New York Times obituary article says that Leon Friedman of Hofstra University School of Law noted: "They changed the rules. Had the new rule been in effect, he [Epton] probably would have won."
Epton played a founding role in the A. Philip Randolph Labor Council. He was also an information officer and printer at the New York City Board of Education after serving a year on Rikers Island. He died at a local hospital in his hometown of Harlem in 2002. He was survived by two children and three grandchildren.
- stdin: [sixties-l] Bill Epton, Former PLP Activist, Dies[dead link]
- Martin, Douglas (February 3, 2002). "William Epton, 70, Is Dead; Tested Free Speech Limits". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-03-09.
- "We Accuse: Bill Epton's Speech to the Court". Mltranslations.org. Retrieved 2013-12-31.
-  Archived May 14, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.