Jesse Jackson has crossed a threshold in American politics. At the Democratic convention last week, he collected his clout, gathered year by year, state by state, and came in from the cold.
The consummate outsider, he was not invited in. He campaigned, rallied, mobilized, threatened, and pushed his way in, often against the advice of cooler heads.
When he finally threw his lot entirely in with the Democratic Party establishment, he entered with a power base of his own - a constituency with significant voting power.
``This is the first time,'' says Lucius Barker, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis and an alternate delegate for the Rev. Mr. Jackson, ``that blacks have been on the inside in a bargaining relationship'' in national politics.
By most accounts, Jackson has brought the aspirations of black Americans - long cynical about politics and the system - inside with him.
Whether Jackson becomes an isolated achiever, shut out of real power, or a transitional figure in black history hangs on the coming campaign.
``Black people are taking a bet on working completely within the system,'' says Mary Frances Berry, a US civil rights commissioner and University of Pennsylvania historian. ``And they're going full-bore, as it were, with Jesse.
``The real issue is, having led folks to the kingdom, whether it will pay off or not,'' she says.
Jackson now treads a fine line between insider and outsider, black and white. He must show that he has a real voice in the Democratic campaign without breaking ranks. He and Michael Dukakis need to sustain their impeccable convention finesse, notes Dr. Barker - a tough act.
``He will always be with the big boys in public,'' Dr. Berry adds. ``But there are meetings and there are meetings. We'll have to see if people are really taking him as seriously as they say.''
In the course of this campaign, Jackson has not only become the unrivaled eminence among black politicians but also the leader of the left wing of the Democratic Party.
And he has stretched the imagination of what a black man can achieve. More particularly, he has rendered conceivable what was beyond imagining to many: a black president.
Comparisons to Martin Luther King Jr. arise more frequently and easily now. Very different men in different times, but Jackson is ranked with Dr. King in his ability to inspire hope and black pride.
Some people, including those who know him best, balk at such talk. To his critics, Jackson has always been a huckster and opportunist, out for himself. Among the civil rights elite in Atlanta, ``We know Jesse'' is a winking refrain.
But rank-and-file black voters are not buying it. ``I don't believe that,'' says Kathryn Byrd, who owns an Atlanta beauty salon. ``I think he's very dedicated, and I like that.''
Last Wednesday, as Jesse Jackson was being entered for nomination as the Democratic candidate for the presidency, Wilbur Jones was euphoric on the convention floor.
Unlike most of the crowd, the black Jackson delegate from Ohio stood with his back to the podium, his eyes pinned on US Sen. Ernest Hollings from South Carolina, who was on his feet waving a banner and chanting ``Jesse!''
A sign of changing times? ``Oh yes,'' Mr. Jones said. ``You better believe it.''
Senator Hollings is the first to admit that he supports Jackson out of simple arithmetic: Jackson won South Carolina's caucuses with votes Hollings will need for re-election.
This is not the politics of set-asides and tokenism. Nor is it the politics of charity and conscience. Jackson - having won 13 states - has negotiated from the strength of numbers.
A different kind of power drove the marches and sit-ins of the 1960s civil rights movement. King, like his model, Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, made his appeal to the basic morality of the nation.
When Americans watched John Lewis, now a US congressman, march stoically across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to a clubbing by state troopers, the outrage eventually led to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.
Jackson has carried the game to a whole new level, converting the gains of the civil rights movement into conventional political power. How successfully, the coming months will tell.
``I think what he's done in the Democratic Party is tremendous,'' says Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. ``Whether Jesse's speech translates into budgetary priorities remains to be seen.''
Already, Jackson represents a new pinnacle of achieved power by a black American.
As Pettis Norman watched Jackson and his family on the convention podium last Tuesday night, he thought of Southern white men of the old school and what they must be seeing, of how they must be revising their estimates of what blacks can do.
Millions of youngsters across the country, black and white, says Mr. Norman, a Jackson delegate from Dallas, ``watched a black family with eloquent kids and their dad seriously considered as president.''
While the civil rights movement, Norman notes, changed laws but not necessarily attitudes, Jackson's achievements have helped alter racial perceptions.
If Jackson has indeed changed white perceptions, he has won them over mainly at the left margin.
He doubled his share of white voters from 6 percent in 1984 to 13 percent in 1988, according to the Joint Center for Political Studies. His base was broad enough to make him the only close contender for Governor Dukakis's nomination. More subtly, the issues he campaigned on seemed to seep into the message of the white candidates. His impact on the Democratic platform was distinct.
Yet, among whites overall, opinions of Jackson are at best highly mixed. His race still links him with welfare spending and social decay in many minds. W.E. Griffin, the white owner of a country store in Red Oak, N.C., where politics is discussed daily, says it more straightforwardly than most:
``He may be a good man, and he's probably got plenty of intelligence. But around here people are afraid of welfare and giving away the money.''
Pollster Burns Roper speculates that Jackson has worked subtle change in the image of the black presidential candidate, especially with his display of party statesmanship at the convention.
``He has speeded up the day a black can be vice-president by 10 years and president by 20 years,'' he says.
Closer to home, black politicians hope Jackson has removed some barriers to whites voting for black candidates.
``Someday, whites will no longer be reluctant to vote for somebody just because they're black,'' says Lois Deberry, a Jackson delegate and speaker pro tem of the Tennessee House of Representatives. ``That, to me, will be the lesson of Jesse Jackson.''
To Wilbur Jones, the lesson of Jesse Jackson is simpler than that. ``So much of his life is like mine,'' he says.
And he has a seat at the table.