But like him or loathe him, Sharpton has made the leap from a local and vocal activist to the big league of mainstream American politics. Nowhere was that made more apparent than at a Democratic primary presidential debate held this past February in Harlem's Apollo Theater.
As the prime mover in bringing that debate to Harlem, Sharpton was accorded the honor of asking the first question.
"My shining moment was when the two men that pursued the nomination of the president had to walk in the Apollo. It was just some gravy on the rice that I asked the first question," he says.
And this month, Coretta Scott King called Sharpton "a leader who has protested injustice with a passionate unrelenting commitment to nonviolent action in the spirit and tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."
Sharpton still has his critics. They label him with epithets like impresario of hatred; demagogue; hate-monger; racist clown. To them, he is someone who belongs in the company of David Duke - in the quarantine of American politics.
His reply? "I could show you some of those same titles written about Dr. King in the height of his career: 'communist, womanizer, plagiarizer, liar.'" He adds: "So I think that clearly anyone that fights battles of justice (has) to expect that they will be attacked and attacked unjustly."
Mike Wallace takes another look at the controversial Sharpton today. But to understand who Sharpton is or possibly has become, see his comments in the 1993 60 Minutes interview. Click here to read the two-part report:
The first time anybody outside New York heard of Al Sharpton was in 1987. He was looking over the shoulder of 16-year-old Tawana Brawley, who claimed that four white men had raped and smeared excrement on her, and carved the letters KKK on her chest.
A grand jury disagreed. They found her allegations a hoax, and the Reverend Sharpton was accused of irresponsibly exploiting Brawley to promote himself.
Since the Brawley affair, Sharpton has noisily trumpeted civil rights and - never far from lights, cameras, action - has promoted Al Sharpton. To many black New Yorkers, he was their mouth for social change and for justice. To others, black and white, he was just a mouth. Most New Yorkers have strong feelings about him.
Things seemed to happen to him. If they didn't, he sought them out. But he insisted that his flamboyant behavio was necessary to bring attention to issues.
"You've got to remember, you're competing with Broadway lights, the Statue of Liberty. New Yorkers have seen it all, and you've got to be dramatic enough in New York to get your point heard," Sharpton said.
One might say he shaped his personality - his hair, voice, attitude and jogging suit - for his audience, which is basically a black audience. "Well, if you were raised by James Brown, Jesse Jackson, and Don King, you would be very much like Al Sharpton," Sharpton said.
This so-called boy wonder from Brooklyn has been preaching since age 4.
Born into a middle-class family, his father walked out when he was 10 and forced his mother, his sister and Al onto welfare. That same year he was ordained a Pentecostal minister. By the time he was a teen-ager, Sharpton was leading demonstrations, including one for Jesse Jackson's Operation Breadbasket in 1971.
In the summer of 1989, after a black teen-ager was killed by a mob of whites, Sharpton led demonstrations through New York City's Bensonhurst that lasted for weeks. Frequently they turned ugly. Sharpton was always the center of attention.
One day he became the target. "A guy plunged through the crowd and stuck a knife in my chest. And at first I didn't realize what happened," Sharpton recalled.
"When I looked down, I saw this knife sticking out of my chest, and I grabbed it out. And when the air hit the wound, I fell down. And the next thing I know I was in the back of a car, being rushed to the hospital," he added.
When he woke up after surgery, he asked to talk to his old mentor, Jesse Jackson.
"One could see that something had happened, a kind of change in - in countenance," Jackson recalled. "He had had a brush with death. He had seen death face to face."
Sharpton had a realization. "It really came home to me that if you're going to die for something, you ought to make sure that it's more than some slogans and some loud talking - that you really get something done," Sharpton said. "I made up in my mind that I was going to try to make a difference."
That was seven years ago.
Today Sharpton is still striving to make a difference, but some would say he has undergone a transformation. He has gone mainstream, toned down that explosive rhetoric and lectured at Harvard and Yale universities. Gone are the bright orange jogging suits and the trademark chest medallion. He has slimmed down his body and his hair.
But he insists the changes are not calculated. It's just that he's gotten older. "I'm 45 years old," he explains. "As you get older, you dress older; you do your hair differently. And you do not act like someone in your early 30s 'cause you're a middle-aged man."
"I'm matured. I've lerned how to do what I do better," he adds.
Take the Amadou Diallo case. When the unarmed West African immigrant was killed by New York City police officers who fired 41 shots, the four officers were indicted. After their acquittal for murder, as New York braced for possible violence, Sharpton used the voice of reason and restraint.
"Let not one brick be thrown," he declared. "Let not one bottle be thrown, not one evidence of violence come from us."
And after that, when Patrick Dorismond was shot to death by police officers, again Sharpton acted quickly - and moderately.
But his detractors, the stiffest among them Republicans, remain unpersuaded. Why? Because in recent years Sharpton has been involved in many events that they say show the same behavior he exhibited in the Tawana Brawley case. And they haven't forgiven him for that either.
Sharpton continues to support Brawley, and that continues to haunt him today, as does his refusal to apologize to a former prosecutor, Steven Pagones, whom he publicly accused of being involved in her rape. Pagones sued Sharpton for libel and won. But Sharpton has yet to pay the $65,000 judgment and says he plans to appeal.
And now Sharpton has filed his own defamation suit against the Republican National Committee and its chairman, Jim Nicholson, after he blamed him for inciting violence on two occasions in which a total of nine people died. But the Republican chairman still feels strongly about Sharpton.
Sharpton says they can call him what they want, but they can't accuse him of a crime. The courts will have to decide.
To this day Sharpton is still fighting, and has moved his battles to downtown Manhattan. He has opened a second office in New York's Empire State Building, quite a contrast to his Harlem headquarters. That's where he still rallies every week and from where he draws a six-figure income.
The Empire State Building is headquarters for his latest battle against corporate racism in advertising. From this office, he recently planned a $500-a-plate black-tie affair. This is a radically different profile from that of 1993.
In fact, Sharpton could be said to have joined the middle class, the black bourgeoisie. "I think maybe they joined me," Sharpton insists.
"I'm still rallying every Saturday. We're still marching. In fact, many of what you would call - and I would call - the black middle class...have become our big supporters when I've run for office....So I don't think I've joined anybody. I think a lot more people have joined us," he says.
In a speech years ago, Sharpton had been critical of the mainstream: "I went to one of these high falutin' big Negro affairs," he said then. "'How are you, Reverend? Well, here's my card. Call me sometime,'" he recalled, mimicking the discourse there. "Call you about what? We got unemployment in Harlem, Be-Stuy, south side of Chicago, West L.A. Can you hire kids at your corporation?" Sharpton said.
Sharpton has run for political office on three occasions: twice for a U.S. Senate seat and once for New York mayor. He lost all three primaries but did manage to capture the black vote.
And that loyal support from the black community is not lost on Democratic politicians. During his primary campaign, former candidate Bill Bradley visited Sharpton at his Harlem headquarters, called the Hall of Justice, as did Hillary Clinton. Both were criticized for what some considered pandering to the likes of Sharpton.
When it came time for Vice President Al Gore to make the pilgrimage, he took a much less visible path.
Said Gore in a speech: "I did not meet with Reverend Sharpton publicly. I met with him privately. And I talked with him about some of the concerns that I have. I will not violate the privacy of that conversation."
Sharpton says the fact that his Gore meeting was private is not significant: "If I had to meet with Gore in a subway stop (at) midnight in the dark to get two presidential candidates for the first time to come to Harlem, I would have had the meeting there. The results speak for themselves," he says.
Will the Republicans use Sharpton as a wedge in the fall election season? "I hope they do, 'cause I already have my pictures of Governor Pataki and Governor Whitman and them ready, so I can show them how the Republicans were - quote - 'pandering' to me a lot sooner than the Democrats were," Sharpton says.
He has that photo with the governor of New Jersey but no camera recorded a meeting with the governor of New York.
"They never attack Republicans when they meet with me. In fact, when Republicans meet with me, they're reaching out. When Democrats meet with me they're pandering. I don't see the difference," Sharpton says.
So what is it that Sharpton truly wants?
"I want to be an activist," he explains. "I want to be a minister in the truest sense of the word."
And, he adds: "I want to be the bad black activist that becomes the mayor of New York City."