James Osborne, 25-year-old house painter, Congregationalist minister and labor organizer, returned to Atlanta from the west in the summer of 1893. Thousands of Atlantans were fearful of layoffs and wage cuts as the nation’s economy slowed, and many of them turned out to hear Osborne’s speeches in behalf of the People’s Party, which was reaching out from its rural base to Georgia’s urban proletariat. The Atlanta police finally forbade Osborne the use of the city well, the city’s customary site for public speaking, but Osborne announced that he would speak as planned on the night of Sept. 13 on the topic “Christian Aspects of the Labor Problem.”
At 7:30 Osborne climbed atop the wall around the well to loud cheers from a crowd of several thousand. Atlanta Police Chief Connolly appeared at his side, shook hands, and reminded him that he would be arrested if he tried to speak. Osborne replied, “I believe I have a right to speak here and will proceed.”
Two sentences into the speech Connolly interrupted, saying “Consider yourself under arrest.” Osborne and his captor went down Marietta Street, the crowd close behind, cheering for Osborne. At police headquarters Osborne said he would post bond but would not promise not to speak at the well. Chief Connolly immediately ordered him jailed. Interviewed in his cell, Osborne said he was prepared to appeal his case to the federal courts. The Journal also reported that Osborne had said that he would have incited the crowd at the well to riot if he had so chosen.
Osborne appeared in Atlanta police court the next afternoon. The courtroom was packed with workingmen who cheered Osborne’s lawyer, W.C. Glenn, as he made a passionate oration on free speech. The judge threatened the entire audience with 30 days in the stockade and imposed $100 fine on Osborne for obstructing a public street.
The Journal had been fairly sympathetic to Osborne up until this time, but he had objected to their claim that he had threatened a riot. The Journal stood by its story and launched a campaign of ridicule against the young agitator. They began by noting that Osborne had only one eye. They printed an unflattering drawing of his eyeless right profile, quipping that “It is always the policy of The Journal to give both sides of a question.” They also claimed that Osborne owned a glass eye, but that he inserted it only for court appearances. These slurs were denounced by a large meeting of workers, the Journal responding with huffy editorials professing its love of labor and denouncing Osborne as a charlatan.
On Sept. 26 Osborne delivered his interrupted speech on “The Christian Aspect of the Labor Movement” to 500 people at DeGive’s Opera House. The meeting opened with a prayer by Reverend Mr. Hopkins who told the crowd “I am a Methodist, and we never have a meeting of this kind without a collection,” whereupon he appointed a committee to take an offering.
The speech covered a lot of ground: Osborne endorsed giving women the vote, but opposed the same privilege for European immigrants. He denounced the wage system and called for the abolition of rent, interest and profit, and for the redistribution of land to those who worked it. Denouncing capitalism as opposed to the spirit of Christianity, Osborne concluded: “It is a sin for the working people to be discontented. There is but one way to make a change, and that is for the great labor and farmer organizations to join into one industrial and political body.” The meeting ended with the signing of the Doxology.
Two weeks later the Journal reported that Osborne had had his youngest brother, Ben, arrested a charge of lunacy. The Journal neglected to get the labor organizer’s version of the story. Instead, they interviewed Ben in his cell at the police station. Ben Osborne told a tale of persecution at the hands of James’s wife, who, he claimed, sneaked into his room and secretly rearranged his books, then blamed him for putting jelly on the floor, when the culprit was actually one of her own children. He said that Mrs. Osborne threatened to whip her husband if he would not punish Ben for the jelly incident. This, Ben concluded, was the cause of his arrest. “I’m no more crazy than they are. I flatter myself that I have more sense than the whole shooting match.” The Journal reported that the police agreed and concluded by describing Ben as “a fine-looking, muscular young man [who] talks perfectly rational,” a verdict they would, in time, have occasion to reconsider.
James Osborne soon had more trouble from another quarter. The president of his union, The Brotherhood of Painters and Decorators, wrote from Chicago to the Atlanta local saying that he had never authorized Osborne to act as an organizer and instructed the local to demand Osborne’s membership card in order to ascertain whether he was actually still a member. Osborne refused to surrender his card and the local unanimously passed a resolution repudiating him.
© 1994 John Ryan Seawright
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