ATLANTA (Reuters) - Black Americans savored Barack Obama's unprecedented victory in the Democratic race for U.S. president, but said on Wednesday the higher stakes raised the prospect of deep disappointment in November.
The knowledge that Obama will be the first black American to lead a major party in a U.S. presidential election as he faces Republican John McCain in November provoked a flood of reflection from black voters at Atlanta's "K&K Soul Food" restaurant.
"It's great. We finally have a 'brother' nominated to be president. It's the best thing I've ever seen," said Alan Stephens, 46, who had parked the truck he uses for his welding business directly outside the big side window.
"But it will be even better when he is president," he said, adding that Obama's victory should be put in the context of other milestones in African American history, a popular view among a U.S. minority with a keen sense that discrimination and the struggle to overcome it has defined its identity.
In winning the nomination, Obama has left many African Americans elated but at the same time fearful that their own preoccupations might derail the candidate in a general election, said William Jelani Cobb, author of books about contemporary black culture.
"Black Americans are treading on thin ice, moving very delicately. This (Obama's) opportunity is frail and fragile (and many say) let's make sure that nothing happens to ruin it," said Cobb, a professor of history at Atlanta's Spelman College.
Obama is set to deliver his nomination speech to the party convention in Denver on August 28, 45 years to the day after civil rights leader Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington.
Civil rights ended legalized racial segregation in the U.S. South by building a coalition of blacks and whites and Obama's achievement was also that he built a multi-ethnic coalition, Cobb said.
"He has smashed the old simplistic model of being closely aligned with black folk or popular with white folk," he said.
Politicians such as David Dinkins, who became New York's first black mayor in 1990 and Douglas Wilder, who became the first black governor of a U.S. state when he won in Virginia in 1990, did that, but no black politician had previously pulled off the feat on a national scale, Cobb said.
At the same time, Obama would likely help to usher out a generation of black politicians including civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, for whom the redress of discrimination was an over-riding concern.
It was business as usual at the restaurant in a working-class neighborhood in southwest Atlanta.
As on any other day, the mostly black clientele lined up with brown trays to select from a menu that included oxtail, fried fish, collard greens and iced tea, paid the cashier in her glass booth and sat down to eat using plastic knives and forks.
Some customers said Obama's win was evidence of wider changes that included a softening of barriers between blacks and whites and a broader acceptance that many groups compete in U.S. society.
"It's a victory for multiculturalism," said Vedia Jackson, 36, a telecommunications project manager who had driven across town to eat at the restaurant. "This country has changed quite a lot color-wise and it's time for people of color to be in influential situations."
"I am not looking at him (Obama) in terms of color. Maybe my parents would have done that. I am looking at him as the best candidate," she said between mouthfuls of fried fish.
Jackson said she traveled to eat at "K&K" because the restaurant seasoned its food in a way that reminded her of how food was cooked when she was growing up in Mississippi.
Jackson's dining companion Wayne McKenzie, 41, rejected any notion that race was a prime reason for Obama's triumph.
"The fact that he is African American is secondary. He's the best candidate whether he's green, pink or yellow," he said.