Last week, James T. Harris went from being an average guy to one of the most reviled men in Black America. At a Waukesha, Wisconsin, town hall rally with Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin on Thursday, the African-American radio host from Milwaukee pleaded with McCain to step up his attacks against Barack Obama. “We have the good Reverend Wright. We have [the Reverend Michael L.] Pfleger,” Harris said to the cheers of thousands of White audience members. “I am begging you, sir. I am begging you. Take it to him.” In a show of true solidarity, Harris, 44, and the Republican nominee then hugged.
As this moment spread throughout the media, many African-Americans likened his impassioned remarks to racial betrayal and subservient shuffling. Theories circulated that Harris was a plant for the McCain campaign. ESSENCE.com talked with Harris, who describes his political beliefs as being “right of Rush,” about how he ended up at the town hall, receiving hate mail, and how he really feels about that hug with John McCain.
ESSENCE.COM: How are you doing?
JAMES T. HARRIS: Girl, I’m getting my butt spanked today!
ESSENCE.COM: I can imagine. You’ve generated a lot of buzz. What attention have you been getting since the rally?
HARRIS: I’ve heard from Americans of African descent, scattered across the fruited plain, to the tune of about 1,000 or more. I’d say 99 percent of it has been straight up hate on a level that I find a bit overwhelming. They’re coming through my blog, Facebook, e-mail and my business site.
ESSENCE.COM: What are people saying?
HARRIS: Let me just pull some up now. [Reading] “Hey man, are you the plant that sucked up to McCain? What were you thinking? You should be ashamed of yourself.” “Are you that self-loathing bastard?” This is just at random. “You are lost, sad and worthy of pity. I will not hate you; I will call you by your rightful name: House Nigger.” And that was mild! [Laughs.]
ESSENCE.COM: Have you gotten positive feedback from people applauding you for standing up for your beliefs?
HARRIS: I would say the mail coming in is 12 to 1—for every 12 negative, I get one positive. There’s been some really heartfelt stuff I’ve read from people across the nation. A number of these e-mails say I spoke for millions of conservatives who are frustrated, like I am, that Senator McCain isn’t engaging Barack Obama on these issues. I’m getting letters like, “You said what many of us have been dying to say.” That’s encouraging. That’s coming from someone who’s my ideological brother. What I find shocking are the people who say they are my brothers in race, who are upset to say the least.
ESSENCE.COM: Going back to those negative comments, a lot of people do think you were paid by somebody to say those remarks. How did get to participate in the town hall event?
HARRIS: Through my public speaking work I’ve had an opportunity to speak to the Republican Party in Waukesha on two occasions. And my radio show is popular in that area, so people know who I am. I contacted the Party in Waukesha and said, “If you have two tickets, I would love to be there to show my support.” And so they had me pick up tickets, and my wife and I went to the event. While waiting in line I was standing right next to the parents of the chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, whose wife was my son’s first grade teacher. This is by pure coincidence. My wife notices her name on the envelope, and we start laughing and talking. Now, the father has health issues so they called their son and said, “We can’t wait in this long line.” And when the security guard came to get them, the father said, “That’s James T. Harris.” The security guard said, “Come with me.” So, we walked in and we sat in reserved seats. I said, “You can seat me anywhere you want,” but seeing as we were two of only four or five Black people out of thousands of people there, they strategically place people where they’ll be seen. There’s nothing new in that. So that’s how we ended up in that area. I had no idea I’d be that close. I didn’t go into that event knowing I would speak and ask a question. When I read stuff about me being a plant, and that I’m speaking on behalf of the McCain camp, it’s laughable! There was no plan to this.
ESSENCE.COM: At the town hall you said McCain should talk more about Obama’s connection to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. But last spring you could barely turn on the news without seeing Rev. Wright. Don’t you think there’s been enough attention given to that relationship?
HARRIS: Again, this is further evidence that this thing wasn’t scripted. I thought I had said something different. I wanted to say Barney Frank and Harold Raines, because I believe their fingerprints are all over this economic demise. These people were in my brain, and yet I didn’t articulate it. I went blank. It’s not just Rev. Wright and Reverend Pfleger. It sounded like I was saying, “Bring up all these old things and beat him over the head with it.” Well, you should, in conjunction with the new names that have come up over the past few weeks. I’m sitting in this town hall meeting, and Senator McCain is talking about what he’s going to do about global warming and all these other things. At one point I just raised my hand and said, “I want to know when are you going to take it to Barack Obama?”
ESSENCE.COM: McCain has already addressed a lot of these issues, including Bill Ayers and ACORN, in campaign attack ads. What specifically do you think he should do, to “take it to Obama,” that hasn’t already been done?
HARRIS: That’s different. That’s ads. Barack Obama said yesterday that, “McCain hasn’t said this to my face.” You know what? He’s right! Forget all these campaign ads. Say it to his face. I said, “We have one debate left, and we have a few weeks left; I am begging you take it to Obama!” That was the context. Not “Massa, please. Massa, please.” That wasn’t it. That’s the context that’s being looped on CNN and on blog sites. Nobody played the full clip. Maybe I’m just kind of jaded because of all I’ve been going through. I’m like, “Oh my God, this isn’t right.” I really do understand how this is an emotional thing, and people think Stepin Fetchit. But that wasn’t the case at all. I don’t think I carried myself like that, and I don’t think my question was whining.
ESSENCE.COM: So, let’s talk about that hug…
HARRIS: That’s another thing I want to clear up. When he came over to me and was bending down, I was like, “What, is he going to hug me?” He didn’t. He whispered something in my ear. He actually just put his hand on my shoulder. But in that moment I was like, “What am I going to do? I can’t not hug him. I can’t pull away. But if I hug him it’s going to look crazy! This is like Sammy Davis, Jr., with Nixon!” But he wasn’t trying to hug me. He just leaned down and whispered something in my ear.
ESSENCE.COM: What did he say?
HARRIS: I’m not going to tell you. That was between the Senator and me. After the next debate I’ll be willing to talk about it.
ESSENCE.COM: The Obama campaign says personal attacks are a distraction from the issues. Why do you think it’s so important to go negative on Obama, rather than focus on what McCain will do for America?
HARRIS: Something happened in Wisconsin, because for the first time in this election, Senator McCain came face to face with his angry base. We’re frustrated with the fact that John McCain didn’t hold up his part. You can talk about the issues and global warming and how you’re going to have buyouts for homeowners. We are getting decimated, and we believe it’s because you’re not fighting for the values that you say you believe in. You fought in Vietnam, you fought against corruption, and you reached across the aisle. So why, in the final stages, are you capitulating? That was the mood that was in the town hall meeting.
ESSENCE.COM: Speaking of the mood there, along with other recent McCain rallies, it seemed very angry and hostile. At some rallies people have shouted that Obama is a terrorist. How do you feel about this being the face of Republican voters right now?
HARRIS: That didn’t take place at the town hall, but I am aware of some stuff that happened in Ohio. I have to be honest with you, after the last 24 hours, no one can roll up on me and talk about hatred and inciting violence after what I have experienced.
ESSENCE.COM: In your gut, who do you think is going to win?
HARRIS: John McCain. And, oh Lord, Lord, Lord, if that happens! As much as the followers of Obama are invested in this thing, it’s going to make Bush Derangement Syndrome look like a cold. There’s going to be severe backlash; people are going to lose their minds. Black people are going to say, “Voter suppression, voter fraud.” With the allegiance and almost worship of Barack Obama, I think if he loses it’s going to be very ugly.
ESSENCE.COM: Don’t you think it could be just as ugly if McCain loses?
HARRIS: No. If McCain loses, you know who conservatives are going to blame? McCain. You’re going to have people say, “Grandpa McCain lost this election!” People get emotional because they don’t see him running this race right, and that’s what McCain saw Thursday night.