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Inside Politics

Racism, personal safety factors in Obama's deliberations

Story Highlights

• Jesse Jackson told Obama of what he faced during presidential campaigns
• More blacks serving in elected office, more voters willing to support blacks
• Obama generating excitement in early election events
By John King
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Jesse Jackson says that as he shares fond memories of his 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns with Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, he also passes along memories of the ugly side.

"There was an antipathy to my running," Jackson said. "We received the most threats of any candidate ever."

Jackson aides and Secret Service officials from those days recall hate mail, racial slurs and death threats aimed at both the candidate and his family.

"I had the most sensitivity to the fact that we had to have security at home. The threats are very real," Jackson said. "Everyplace we went, Secret Service always on edge."

Obama, a Democrat elected to the Senate just two years ago, announced Tuesday on his Web site -- http://www.barackobama.com/external link -- that he was forming a presidential exploratory committee. (Watch why Obama is considering jumping into the race Video)

Obama's aides are reluctant to discuss internal deliberations. But they did say that, of course, racism and security issues were among the factors Obama and his wife considered as they discussed the toll a presidential campaign would have on them and their two young daughters.

In the end, though, aides said, Obama was shaped by his experience in Illinois and his 2006 midterm campaign travels, and he believes that the political environment for blacks is much improved.

In his book "The Audacity of Hope" Obama plays down the role of race. However, he did write: "Whatever preconceived notions white Americans may continue to hold, the overwhelming majority of them these days are able -- if given the time -- to look beyond race in making their judgments of people."

Numbers from separate Gallup polls tend to support that view. When Jackson, also a Democrat, first sought the presidency in 1984 there were 5,700 black elected officials in the United States; there are more than 9,500 now. And in 1984, 77 percent of Americans said they were open to supporting a black person for president; more than 9 in 10 Americans say that now.

Racism's not-too-distant past

"I think absolutely that the nation is ready," Richmond, Virginia, Mayor L. Douglas Wilder said in an interview. "People change."

And yet Wilder says his own experience should be a caution to Obama against placing too much credence in the polls.

In 1991 Wilder made history by becoming the first black elected governor in any state -- and he did it in the one-time capital of the Confederacy.

He recalled that late polls showing him with a comfortable lead. But he won narrowly, an indication that many people who told pollsters they would vote for a black man, in the end, did not.

"I am not naive enough to believe that racism is gone," Wilder said. "On the other hand, I think the nearest thing to there being a candidate who could cross that is Obama."

His advice for Obama: "The burden is on him to say, 'Look, I am not running as an African-American. I am not running for history's sake. I am not running for anything other than to be the best possible person to lead this country.' "

Wilder says there is widespread excitement about Obama, and not only among blacks.

He is scheduled to speak at a Virginia Democratic Party fund-raising dinner next month. Wilder said it quickly sold out.

Jackson said that while it is a "bit premature" to start making campaign endorsements, he is all but certain to support Obama.

While Jackson spoke positively of other Democrats seeking or likely to seek the Democratic nomination, he had praise for Obama:

"All of my heart leans toward Barack," Jackson said. "He is a next-door neighbor, literally. I think he's an extension of our struggle to make this a more perfect union."


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Sen. Barak Obama, left, must consider whether America is more accepting of a black candidate then it was when Jesse Jackson ran in 1984.

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