barack_obama_10.jpgPHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Lula Cooper expects the tears to flow if Barack Obama becomes the first black president. But she's not breaking out the tissues just yet.

“I cried when I marked my ballot for him. We've had such an incredible journey to this point,'' said the former civil rights activist, her voice quavering. “I think he's going to win, but I really am very, very cautious.''

Like a Hollywood blockbuster whose conclusion feels assured but still sets the heart racing, the endgame of this election has gripped black America with a powerful mixture of emotions.

Obama's potential victory represents a previously unimaginable triumph over centuries of racism. But beneath the hope and pride lies fear: of polling inaccuracy, voting chicanery, or the type of injustice and violence that have historically stymied African-American progress.

Cooper, 75, experienced the oppression of the 1950s and '60s as she was dragged off to jail for protesting segregation in Wilmington, Delaware, where her husband was DuPont's first black chemist. Now living in the Southwest, she said she experienced modern politics when her husband lost a recent bid to become their city's first black mayor after the election was switched to mail-in ballots rather that polling-place voting.

So when it comes to Obama, Cooper is “optimistic and hopeful _ but experience plays a big part.''

“With my generation, in the '60s every leader that we had was killed,'' she said. “Then it's almost like a plate over your heart. Once you've been hurt _ King, Kennedy, Medgar Evers _ you dare not put that much emotion out there again.''

With even some Republicans using the word “miracle'' to characterize the prospect of a victory by their candidate, John McCain, given his lagging poll numbers, the shock of an Obama loss would be almost incalculable for many blacks. So people are protecting themselves.

“I can't tell you how much fear, but at the same time joy and expectation I have,'' said James Lowry, a management consultant from Chicago. “It revolves around every five minutes. I have hope, I read the polls, I get excited, then I say, 'Anything can happen.'''

Michael Cornwell, a surgeon from Atlanta, checks poll numbers daily online and fully expects Obama to win. Still, “you can't shake the tension,'' he said.

“We're expecting something to come out, some closing of the polls,'' Cornwell said on Thursday. “I see these Republican-driven articles saying the polls are tightening. Are they correct, or are they just a combination of Republicans wanting to make it look good and the media wanting it to be a tight race so more of the population will be engaged or buying copy?''

Paul Durr of Guys, Tennessee, voted early last week. “I was jumping up and down,'' he said. “The other people in line thought I was crazy.''

“If Obama wins, and I know he's going to win, it will pull this country together in terms of race relations,'' said Durr, who owns a cemetery monument company and is mayor of Guys, pop. 500.

“He has to win,'' Durr said. “If he doesn't, I think you'll see this country _ I'm afraid to say what I think would happen the next day. I don't even want to think that way.''

Even if the polls do prove accurate and Obama does win, some of his enthusiastic supporters still have concerns about what lies beyond the mountaintop.

“The empire is in decline, the culture is in decay, the democracy is in trouble, financial markets near collapse,'' said Princeton professor Cornel West. “It's almost Biblical. And you can imagine what the black brothers and sisters in the barbershops and beauty salons say: 'Right when the thing is about to go under, they hand it over to the black man.'''

“If people think Obama being elected is the crescendo, they'll be disappointed,'' said talk show host Tavis Smiley. “That's when the real work begins.''

“I'm not sure people have considered, in the euphoria and jubilation and excitement, the fishbowl Obama will be in,'' Smiley said. “How everything he does for black people, he runs the risk of being accused of being tribal.''

That sentiment is not lost on Leomia Dyches, a sometimes-employed hospital worker and single mother from Philadelphia with one son at home, an older son locked up, and several grandchildren to help look after.

“I think it's great, but I'm not looking for no miracle anytime soon,'' she said. “Hopes are really raised too high now because they're looking for a quick fix, and that's not going to happen.''

Then something wells up inside her. “But I know while he's in office, before he leaves he can put some good things in place for poor people.''

“My 16-year-old son, he sees hope,'' she continued. “A lot of these kids have no hope, it's day in, day out, same thing. They can't look forward to anything different. But a lot of these kids are excited. I have a 6-year-old grandson, and that's all he talks about, 'Obama, vote for Obama, don't vote for John McCain.' My 4-year-old granddaughter told me last night, 'Not John McCain.'

“It's always been said that you can do anything, but now we can see it. My parents have always said it, but it was like, 'Yeah, right.' But now it's here and it's facing you and it can be done. It can be done. These kids have to know, whatever they have in mind for their future, it can be done.''