When preachers in Harlem, in Watts, in North Philadelphia, and other black inner-city communities ring out, ``Vote, vote, go to the polls and vote,'' their congregations know the underlying message. Vote for the Rev. Jesse Jackson for president in the Democratic primaries. The throngs whisper to themselves: ``He can be elected. I hope he can be elected.''
Outside the church, some black people speak with alarm. They fear an assassination attempt on Mr. Jackson. They are skeptical as to whether he can win. Talk with a black on the street and a lively discussion ensues, if the topic is the Jackson campaign. Blacks will debate with one another on whether it is realistic to even think that Jackson can be elected president this year.
Even two Harvard Divinity School students can disagree.
``Jesse Jackson is so attentive to needs of all people, and he walks in good shoes as a man who wants to serve people,'' says divinity student Judith Bowman of Hampton, Va.
``He is interested in making a better way,'' she says. ``He is about helping the homeless ... and helping the jobless find employment. I believe he can win because of his commitment to good causes.''
``No, I don't think Jackson can be elected president,'' says Myron Howie of Baltimore, a Methodist minister who is also attending the Harvard Divinity School.
``I think if certain people thought he could win, they'd shoot him first,'' he says. ``He's a pawn in a chess game. The bottom line is that Democrats will not give Jesse the nomination!''
``Jesse Jackson can move into the White House,'' says Dolores Sandoval of Williston, Vt., assistant to the president for human resources at the University of Vermont.
She says she will hang onto his coattails and run for public office for the first time in her life. She has tossed her bonnet into the race to be Vermont's only representative in Congress.
``It's wonderful,'' she says, ``to see a black man paving the way for our children and our grandchildren to say with authority, `Yes, I can become president of the United States.' This is great!''
Dr. Sandoval may also become a Jackson delegate to the Democratic convention from the state with the smallest percentage of black people.
``Jesse has run in the primaries; he has won plenty of votes,'' says Sheila Nutt, a suburban mother from Newton, Mass. ``It's appalling to hear that people are working to deny him the nomination for president.
``I think he has raised the level of campaigning this year,'' she says. ``He doesn't talk about who slept with who. He doesn't engage in racism. He has elevated the level of campaigning.
``His positive input has surprised lots of people. His running for president makes any American of African descent feel that any achievement is possible.''
But Jerry Jackson, who is retired and lives in Washington, D.C., says, ``I don't think Jesse can win. The so-called power structure will not let him.''
The election of Jesse Jackson will bring in the ``out'' crowd, he says. ``This country is not ready to go back and do the right thing,'' Mr. Jackson says.
``Jesse is serious,'' he says. ``He's like the Pied Piper. He can go through New York, gather cheering people about him, but that does not mean he'll win. He's earned the respect of whites as well as blacks. By 1992 the nation may be ready for a black to at least be nominated for president.''
``Jesse is possible. Our kids need him,'' says Lillie Ross of New York City.
``He has mobilized people, and he has made it possible for a black to run for president without being a curiosity. I'll give Jesse my vote, but I'm afraid if he is the front-runner, it's a possibility he may be assassinated. I'm not forecasting doomsday, but I'm thinking sick reality,'' she says.
Brenda Humphrey of Portland, Me., will be a Jackson delegate. Ms. Humphrey, who will be a state Democratic committeewoman, says: ``People here are joining the Jackson bandwagon of thought. The secret of his appeal is not in glitz and glamour, but in organization, in alertness to little issues. He rattles the cages of status quo.''