"As I ran for president, I hoped that one child would come out of the ghetto like I did, could look at me walk across the stage with governors and senators and know they didn't have to be a drug dealer, they didn't have to be a hoodlum, they didn't have to be a gangster," he said. "They could stand up from a broken home, on welfare, and they could run for president of the United States."
Sharpton repeatedly departed from his prepared text - text that had been scrubbed by John Kerry's staff - and the amended message resonated with the delegates who frequently interrupted his address with cheers and applause.
One of many standing ovations went on for a minute after he told delegates that after the nation failed to deliver on Civil War-era promises of "40 acres and mule" to freed slaves, "we didn't get the mule so we decided we'd ride this donkey as far as it would take us."
He repeatedly slammed the Republican administration.
"Mr. President, the reason we are fighting so hard, the reason we took Florida so seriously, is our right to vote wasn't gained because of our age," Sharpton said. "Our vote was soaked in the blood of martyrs, soaked in the blood of (civil rights activists) Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, soaked in the blood of four little girls in Birmingham. This vote is sacred to us. This vote can't be bargained away. This vote can't be given away.
"In all due respect, Mr. President, read my lips: Our vote is not for sale."
He drew one of the biggest responses when he said: "The issue of government is not to determine who may sleep together in the bedroom, it's to help those that might not be eating in the kitchen."
The convention reception was sweet for a candidate who did poorly in the primaries even while often starring in the debates. He finished a distant third in his home state New York primary with just 8 percent of the vote.
"I think the response was tremendous," he said after the speech. "I felt like I was in a church service after a while."
In a speech earlier Wednesday evening, another former Kerry rival, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, said the true weapons of mass destruction were poverty, joblessness and racism at home.
The Ohio congressman, whose opposition to the Iraq war was central to his run for the nomination, said the country needs "courage to shake off the administration's deceptions, their attacks and their fear-mongering."
Kucinich won more than 60 delegates in the primary season but freed them this week. Many stuck with him in Wednesday night's roll call just the same.
"This is not a vote against John Kerry," said delegate Josh Pendleton of Aurora, Colo. "We will support Kerry in November. We needed recognition that there is a progressive force in the Democratic Party."
By Marc Humbert and Andrew Welsh-Huggins