As he grew, Sharpton gravitated toward a series of male mentors; besides Jackson they included Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a handful of Brooklyn religious leaders and, perhaps most important, soul singer James Brown.
In his 1996 autobiography "Go and Tell Pharaoh," Sharpton said the music world tempted him, but he was drawn to the anger that had begun erupting in New York's black neighborhoods.
Most New Yorkers got their first glimpse of him in 1985, when he organized street protests against Bernard Goetz, the subway gunman who shot four black teenagers on a train, claiming they were getting ready to rob and assault him.
Sharpton also launched protests in Howard Beach, Queens, where white youths had chased three black men from a diner, causing one to die on an expressway; in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where black teenager Yusuf Hawkins was chased and shot to death by white teenagers; and in Crown Heights, where blacks attacked Jews after a Hasidic rabbi's motorcade accidentally killed a 7-year-old black boy.
Many white New Yorkers were alarmed by Sharpton's often polarizing rhetoric during these controversies, and former Mayor Ed Koch called him "Al Charlatan." But then a funny thing happened to the Reverend in Reeboks: He stopped wearing jogging suits and acquired a taste for expensive dress suits. He began moderating his tone.
The change was sparked when a deranged bystander at a 1991 protest march stabbed Sharpton in the chest. He was lucky to survive, and as he recuperated in a hospital bed, he began rethinking his goals.
"I was like anybody else — you grow," he said in an interview last month at a midtown Manhattan office. "Early in the 1980s, starting with Goetz, I was just dealing with individual cases. Then I started saying we need to reform the criminal justice system. Finally, I felt we need to put people in power."
A brush with death had sobered him. "I realized, all of a sudden, I could die doing the work I was doing. I began to question how I wanted to be remembered," he wrote in his autobiography, noting that he now was a father with two daughters. "What was I doing with my life?"
Sharpton ran for the U.S. Senate in the 1992 primary, finishing third in a field of four and drawing 15% of the vote, mostly from blacks. Two years later, he drew 25% in a primary fight against Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He stunned many by garnering 38% of the vote in the 1997 Democratic mayoral primary, nearly forcing a runoff.
In recent years, former Vice President Al Gore, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey and other Democratic candidates have made a pilgrimage on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to the Harlem headquarters of the National Action Network, a group formed by Sharpton. Although a host of officials continue to differ with him on many issues, experts acknowledge his potential effect on Campaign 2004.
"His rhetoric is going to be very poetic, very clever and it will be appealing," said political consultant Joel Benenson. "Some say he won't stand up to scrutiny, but Ross Perot couldn't withstand much scrutiny either — and he got 19% of the vote."
Still, Sharpton's goal of being a power broker may prove elusive. The fact that he is one of America's most visible black political figures guarantees him nothing, says veteran U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel of Harlem.
"The old Al would not have been seen as a candidate," he said. "But no one is entitled to a seat at the big table. You have to earn your right to play a national role. And it won't happen because of your color. It's because of the votes you bring in."
ABOUT THIS SERIES: This is the seventh installment in a weekly series profiling the candidates for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. For the Q&A, the candidates are responding in writing to an identical set of questions, and their responses have been edited for space.