The Rev. Al Sharpton announced Friday that he will form a presidential exploratory committee, saying he is probably more qualified than any other Democrat seeking the White House.
"I am running for president to finally put the issues concerning most Americans onto the front burner," the 48-year-old civil rights activist said in a statement.
"I'm qualified, probably more qualified than any other person who is expected to be on the Democratic ticket for 2004, because I actually have a following and I speak for the people," said Sharpton, who has never held public office.
He will make stops in South Carolina and New Hampshire this month to enhance his visibility in the early primary states.
Sharpton also will travel to Boston this weekend and is scheduled to speak Monday at Harvard University.
Sharpton joins Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in a crowded Democratic field. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri is expected to announce the formation of an exploratory committee.
Preparing for the campaign, Sharpton crisscrossed the country last year giving speeches and wrote a book titled "Al on America" that was released in October. In the book, the black leader said presidential politics has become "an exclusive club for white males, of a certain income, of a certain age."
Sharpton, who wants to bring the party back to its liberal roots, said he would bring diversity of views -- and color -- to the homogeneous Democratic lineup.
"Without me in the race, it will be part of the exclusive club picture again," he said.
Sharpton unsuccessfully sought the New York Democratic nomination for Senate in 1994 and the party's mayoral nomination in 1997. He is the head of the nonprofit civil rights group National Action Network.
But he's moderated his positions in recent years, aligning himself more closely with the party establishment by appearing with Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe, former President Clinton and New York Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles E. Schumer. He's also visited with Republicans, including New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
The national spotlight first focused on Sharpton in 1987 when he served as a spokesman for Tawana Brawley, a black teenager who claimed she was raped by a gang of white men. A grand jury later concluded her story was a hoax.
Sharpton later made headlines as a spokesman against police brutality, representing police torture victim Abner Louima and the family of Amadou Diallo, who was fatally shot by police as he reached for his wallet at his Bronx apartment.
Sharpton said his background and experience as a civil rights leader gives him more insight into the plight of ordinary Americans than his competitors.
"They have been on the public payroll most of their life," he said. "I have an experience far closer to the average American; therefore I have a richer base to deal from as I confront what I think is a critical time for the American public."