The Rev. Al Sharpton was stabbed in the chest Saturday afternoon minutes before the controversial black activist was about to lead a protest march through a neighborhood marked by racial tensions.

A suspect described only as a white male was arrested in connection with the 1:30 p.m. stabbing at a street corner in the predominantly white Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst, said police spokesman Sgt. Ed Burns.Sharpton, 36, was taken to Coney Island Hospital, where he was in stable condition, Burns said. Hospital spokeswoman Barbara Sullivan said that he was admitted and that a statement on his condition was being prepared.

The stabbing took place as Sharpton was about to lead a protest attended by the parents of Yusef Hawkins. Despite the attack, more than 100 protesters conducted a peaceful demonstration with no incidents, Burns said.

Hawkins was a black teenager who was killed by a group of white youths in the Brooklyn neighborhood 11/2 years ago. The highly publicized incident inflamed racial tensions in the city.

It wasn't the only racially charged incident in which Sharpton, known for media savvy and a flamboyant, confrontational style, has been involved.

Sharpton was a major backer of Tawana Brawley, the black teenager in upstate Wappingers Falls whose allegations of rape in November 1987 inflamed racial tensions. Authorities eventually dismissed her allegations as unfounded.

He also was involved in advising relatives in the slaying of a black man in a predominantly white neighborhood in Queens, Howard Beach, in 1986; and relatives of black teenagers accused of gang-raping a white jogger in Central Park in 1989.

During past demonstrations in Bensonhurst held to protest Hawkins' killing, hostile local crowds have taunted demonstrators, hurling racial epithets and holding watermelons, but there have been few violent incidents. Police had been assigned to the neighborhood again Saturday to forestall problems during the demonstration, and it was they who arrested the suspect, Burns said.

Police were investigating reports that a second man might have been involved in the stabbing, the spokesman said.