Illinois Sen. Barack Obama greets supporters in Springfield, Illinois following his February 2007 announcement that he would seek the Democratic nomination for President.
When Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama announced his candidacy for the White House in February 2007, some expressed concern about whether the freshman Illinois senator could win the Democratic nomination. But there were others with an even more pressing concern: whether Obama might be harmed during his bid to become the first African-American president.
As Obama's popularity grows, the fears persist. Many observers describe the 46-year-old's public presence and oratory as reminiscent of past leaders who offered messages of change — John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., all of whom were assassinated.
Obama was placed under U.S. Secret Service protection in March 2007, earlier than any other presidential candidate. Mississippi Congressman Benny Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, wrote the Secret Service early last year expressing concern for Obama's safety.
"I wanted to make sure no harm, of any sort, would come to someone who's choosing to exercise their constitutional rights ... to run for public office," the legislator says.
But Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which monitors the activity of hate groups in the U.S., says Obama's race, specifically, is making him a target of hate groups in ways different from his opponent, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, a white woman.
Potok's group tracks threatening comments in online communities. "There's no question that he's a particular focus [of hate groups], and it's because he's a black man," Potok says of posts he has read suggesting that Obama should be harmed.
But even those with racially charged animosities toward Obama will go only so far in publicly advocating acts of violence, Potok says.
"These groups have become more and more adept to coming right up to the line of how far they can go without being arrested," Potok says.
Still, Thompson, an Obama supporter, worries. A native Mississippian, Thompson remembers attending King's funeral in 1968. He is sensitive to any possible threats to Obama's safety, and so are his constituents. When voters speak with Thompson about the Democratic front-runner, they almost always express concern.
"Inevitably, the conversation moves toward the excitement behind the Obama campaign," Thompson explains. "But [there's] also the concern, 'Will he be safe?' "
As chairman of the powerful homeland security committee, Thompson hopes for a safe presidential elections process. And if that process happens to include Obama as the Democratic nominee for president, Thompson says the senator will be in good hands.
"I'm convinced that we do have the [necessary] professionals around the senator and his family to protect them."
Written and produced for the Web by Lee Hill.