DECATUR, GA. -- She wasn't belligerent or dogmatic, but she had a strong opinion about Jesse L. Jackson.
"He's got a lot of charisma; I love to hear him speak, but I can't vote for him," said Janet Cukor, 63, a lawyer who works for the head of the county government here. "He's been a poor manager, his PUSH operation has been in financial trouble continuously in Chicago, and . . . . "
At that point, she was interrupted by Walter J. Cleveland, 37, a telephone worker and Vietnam veteran. Cleveland, a black, demanded to know why Cukor, a white, couldn't support Jackson. The implication in his words was unmistakable: racism. "Why can't you vote for him?" Cleveland demanded again.
Cukor reiterated her reasons, this time responding to the implicit accusation of racism: "I've been voting for black candidates since the '40s, so that's not it. If he's had problems managing a relatively small operation like PUSH, what's he going to do with managing the federal government?" Again, her answer failed to satisfy.
That short, sharp, sudden exchange between two southern Democratic voters -- one black, the other white -- occurred during a group discussion here about the presidential campaign on the eve of the "Super Tuesday" southern primaries. It was revealing not only for the obvious emotions stirred by Jackson's candidacy but also for its exposure of a deeper conflict certain to continue long after this campaign.
The conflict involves the old one in the South, race, with a new twist. Now, it's no longer a question of a black being on the ballot or winning high office. The question is whether a new wave of racial polarization will result from the highly emotional Jackson campaign.
As the voter colloquy here suggests, many black voters are likely to attribute a Jackson defeat to racism when that is not the case -- or always the case. Many whites will resent the imputation that their decision not to vote for Jackson was motivated by racism.
Here, too, the exchange of black-white voter views was revealing, especially given Cukor's white liberal background.
She crossed the Mason-Dixon line for the first time 29 years ago on a family vacation, heading from Detroit to Florida on a trip that left an indelible memory.
"I was glad my children were too young to read then," she said, "because we saw these white-only signs everywhere. When we stopped at gasoline stations, they had three keys for the rest rooms. My smart little kids wanted to know why there were three keys instead of just two. I remember going to the race track in Miami and guards running out to us telling us that that was the black entrance."
With that in mind, she greeted with dismay the news of her husband's move south six years later.
"When my husband said he was going to take a job here in Atlanta in 1965, I cried, I cried for days," she said. "The only thing I can say is that, over those six years since we had been South, those things had changed. Those segregation signs were gone in Atlanta even though for years I always identified myself not as a Georgia Democrat but as a national Democrat because I didn't want to be aligned with some of the people in the state who call themselves Democrats. I'm not saying there still isn't discrimination, but we've seen that part of it gone. Things have changed . . . . We've done a lot of positive things. Let's not forget that."
Blacks, obviously, have a different picture of progress. "If Jesse Jackson was white, he would have been elected four years ago," said another black voter, Michael G. Cooper, 34, an affirmative action officer in the local government. "Jackson's given a lot of people reason to go to the polls. People say, well, he never held political office before. Well, neither did Ronald Reagan until he got out of acting."
Jackson is not running a racial campaign. His message, expressed passionately wherever he goes in the South these final days before Tuesday's primary votes are cast, is an evocation of the "new South" theme first sounded a century ago in a famous speech by the white Atlanta editor, Henry W. Grady. "There was a South of slavery and secession," Grady began, in words generations of southern schoolchildren knew by heart. "That South is dead. There is a South of union and freedom. That South, thank God, is living, breathing, growing every hour."
Old and new rhetoric aside, the hard evidence here is that whites and blacks will face racial rehabilitation work after the Jackson campaign ends -- unless, of course, voters do that work for them and elect Jackson president.