NEW YORK For many black Americans, it's a conversation they find hard to avoid, revisiting old fears in the light of bright new hopes.
They watch with wonder as Barack Obama moves ever closer to becoming America's first black president. And they ask themselves, their family, their friends: Is he at risk? Will he be safe?
There is, of course, no sure answer. But interviews with blacks across the country, prominent and otherwise, suggest that lingering worries are outweighed by enthusiasm and determination.
"You can't have lived through the civil rights movement and know something about the history of African-Americans in this country and not be a little concerned," said Edna Medford, a history professor at Washington's Howard University.
"But African-Americans are more concerned that Obama get the opportunity to do the best he can," she added. "And if he wins, most of us believe the country would do for him what it would do for any president, that he will be as well protected as any of them."
Clyde Barrett, 66, a longtime U.S. Labor Department employee now retired in Tampa, Fla., says he often hears expressions of concern for Obama's safety. One young acquaintance, Barrett said, declared he wouldn't even vote for Obama for fear of exposing him to more danger.
"To me that's a cop-out, where you can't take a stand and support someone because you fear for his safety," Barrett said. "I don't have any apprehension ... We've got to go ahead and persevere."
For many older blacks, the barometer for gauging hopes and fears is the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
But concern about Obama's safety transcends racial lines. He has white supporters who see him as an inspiring, youthful advocate of change in the mold of Robert F. Kennedy, and they are mindful of Kennedy's assassination just two months after King's.
Pam Hart, the principal of a multiracial elementary school in the Philadelphia suburb of Cheltenham, said she is struck by the contrast between some of the black students there, innocently excited about Obama's candidacy, and the more anxious perspective of older people who lived through the violence of the 1960s.
"My 70-year-old aunt every time I call her, she says she's really afraid Obama is going to be assassinated. She is so worried that history will repeat itself," said Hart, who is 40. "I understand why she's afraid, but I feel we live in a different world now."
Bruce Gordon, a New York-based business leader and former president of the NAACP, also feels the climate has changed dramatically as evidenced by the strong nationwide support that Obama is receiving from whites as well as blacks.
Gordon felt differently back in the mid-1990s, when Gen. Colin Powell was weighing a run for the presidency, and Powell's wife, Alma, was among those voicing concern about his safety.
"When Powell decided not to run, I said to myself, 'Good,' because I thought someone would kill him," Gordon recalled. "This time, I think that if, out of fear, we keep our most talented people from running for office, it will never happen.
"Yes, there's a risk, but I would never want it to be in the way," Gordon added. "In running, Barack Obama has to accept the fact that he faces a risk. And yes, we pray for him."
Obama received Secret Service protection last May the earliest ever for any presidential candidate. At the time, federal officials said they were not aware of any direct threats to Obama, but Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin who was among those recommending the Secret Service deployment acknowledged receiving information, some with racial overtones, that made him concerned for Obama's safety.
Obama's campaign, invited this week to comment on the concerns felt by many blacks, referred to a speech given by the candidate's wife, Michelle, to a mostly black audience in South Carolina last fall.
"I know people care about Barack and our family. I know people want to protect us and themselves from disappointment," she said, before urging people to cast fear aside.
"If you're willing to heed Coretta Scott King's words and not be afraid of the future ... there's no challenge we can't overcome," she said.
Obama himself, while acknowledging that his family and friends are concerned about his safety, has drawn a contrast with King.
"He didn't have Secret Service protection," Obama told TV host Tavis Smiley last fall. "I can't even comprehend the degree of courage that was required, and look what he did."
Sherry Miles, 45, of Madison Heights, Va., said she's had sobering talks about Obama's safety with her friends and her mother.
"People who want to bring drastic change bring a certain fear among those who don't want change," Miles said. "You look back at our history, and all of the people who tried to bring about change were killed or threatened."
Miles, who works for Virginia's Department of Mental Health, said she was troubled listening to a recent local radio show in which one female caller termed Obama "the devil" and falsely asserted that he was Muslim.
"It's ill-informed people like her who concern me," Miles said. "I'm very pleased that Obama is there, doing so well. But at the same time I'm fearful someone will try to hurt him."
Bryan Monroe, Chicago-based editorial director for Ebony magazine, said the risk faced by Obama "is in the back of people's minds," but that their worries are often superseded by excitement that he could win. Their No. 1 question, Monroe says, "is could this really happen in our lifetime?"
Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, a former executive director of the Black Leadership Forum, noted that political leaders of any race face risks in a society where mass shootings and other violence by aggrieved or deranged assailants is all too common.
It is troubling, she said, to acknowledge such dangers at the very moment when Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton are demonstrating the historic opportunities available to blacks and women.
"We cannot be crippled by fear. That's the overwhelming emotion in the African-American community," Scruggs-Leftwich said. "We have to do the American thing: We buckle up and keep going."
Read more in later editions of The Blade and toledoblade.com
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