The Reverend Al Sharpton became the only African-American presidential candidate seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 when Carol Mosely-Braun withdrew from the race January 15. Rev. Sharpton has been a controversial fixture of New York politics for more than 30 years, and an outspoken advocate for minority causes who has often found himself at the center of heated racial conflicts. As Kerry Sheridan reports from VOA's New York Bureau, Al Sharpton is making his first run for president into a mission - using his reputation to draw attention to issues that affect African-Americans.
"Thank you very much. What a pleasure it is to be here hosting Saturday Night Live," Reverend Al Sharpton said as the TV show guest host. "For me it's a wonderful opportunity to reach out to a broader audience. Maybe tonight, people can finally get to know the real Al Sharpton, President Al Sharpton."
The Reverend Al Sharpton does not mind poking fun at himself. He knows his chance of winning the presidency in 2004 is slim.
After making three failed bids for elected office - once for mayor of New York City and twice for a Senate seat - Al Sharpton is embarking on his first campaign for president with a clear message: He says he'll be the one who stands up for minorities, the one who speaks out against Republican George W. Bush and the political machine.
In a recent debate, he brought up the injustice suffered by some blacks whose votes were not counted during the 2000 Florida election, and criticized Al Gore's endorsement of Democratic rival Howard Dean as "bossism."
"We waited four years - after some of were disenfranchised, after some of us in Duvall county couldn't vote - so we could express ourselves, and we're not going to have any big name come in now and tell us the field should be limited and we can't be heard," he said. "The Republicans ... the Republicans shut us up four years ago, Al Gore, no Democrat is going to shut us up today. Let the people decide on the nominee. Bossism shouldn't happen. I know Governor Dean and Al Gore love the Internet - www.bossism[.com] doesn't work on my computer."
If there's one thing about Al Sharpton that most can agree on, it's that he is an expert at stirring up emotion. The controversial black leader gained notoriety in 1987 when he came to the defense of a black teenager named Tawana Brawley, who claimed she was raped by several white men - a claim that was later revealed to be a hoax. After a young black man was murdered in a Jewish section of Brooklyn in 1989, Mr. Sharpton led racially charged protests in the streets. And when a West African immigrant named Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times by white police officers who suspected him of reaching for a gun, Mr. Sharpton waged a public campaign against the police practice of racial profiling.
Kadiatou Diallo, the mother of the slain Amadou Diallo, won't say whether she supports Al Sharpton's bid for the presidency. But she does say his ability to bring attention to a cause is something that sets him apart.
"I think for civil rights causes - he advocate(s) that all the time - to bring the public awareness around an issue he is effective on that, and I think it's a good thing to really have a unique voice for people in the minority communities," she said.
Minority communities, particularly in New York, are where Al Sharpton draws most of his support. As a young boy, the Brooklyn native had a love for preaching in front of friends and family members, and he was ordained as a minister at the age of ten.
Much of his presidential campaigning so far has involved making television appearances and delivering guest sermons at various black churches around the country, places where he has traditionally been well-received.
In those appearances, Al Sharpton encourages blacks to register to vote. He supports tax cuts for the poor and middle class, abortion rights, better health care coverage and gay marriage.
He takes a particularly strong stand against the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
"I am opposed to occupation. I think it is an oxymoron to say you are against the war but for occupation," he said. "That's like somebody breaking in your house and you call the police and say, 'They have broken in to you, but they can stay here.'"
Al Sharpton's one-liners and his comedian's sense of timing make him a likeable person, but voter polls show he has only a small following. According to one recent poll surveying 1,300 registered voters nationwide, only five percent said they would like to see Al Sharpton win the Democratic nomination.
Even among African-Americans, support for Al Sharpton is minimal. The most recent poll conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which conducts research on policy issues of concern to minorities, revealed just 37 percent of African-Americans have a favorable view of Al Sharpton.
David Bositis, an analyst with the Joint Center, says Al Sharpton hasn't been able to extend his base of supporters beyond the northeastern United States, and as a candidate, he won't be able to come close to the last black candidate to run for president, Jesse Jackson.
"This is not an issue election. The main thing that African-Americans want is to replace George W. Bush," he said. "That's it. Period. And all of the Democratic candidates will be acceptable so long as they potentially can fit that bill. Al Sharpton is obviously not going to fit that bill."
But the possibility of losing doesn't faze Al Sharpton. He is pushing forward, framing his campaign as a movement.
"Sharpton's New York campaign will be the setting again of the plate that will not only affect '04, but will affect '05, will affect '06 on into the new millennium," he said. "This is the beginning of a movement that will unite blacks, whites and Latinos to retake this city and state to move on toward progressive politics."
The notion of such a movement, and the potential for a ground-swell of influence by black voters united for the same cause is what draws New Yorker Jim Greene to support Al Sharpton's message.
"I'm not voting for Al Sharpton, I'm voting for the movement, all right? The other people are candidates, what are their real goals? You see Al Sharpton's got a movement here going," he said. "I would like to compare what Al Sharpton is doing right now with the birth of the conservative party for example, okay? You start off not wanting to win but you make a point. So it became such that when election time came, your endorsement became critical."
Some election observers believe that Al Sharpton is running purely to improve his public image. Others say he won't have any impact on the outcome of the race. But one thing is certain - Al Sharpton will use his campaign to raise the volume of minority voices in the United States, which is, after all, what he does best.