Julian Bond, the civil rights activist and former chairman of the NAACP, has died at age 75, the Southern Poverty Law Center said in a statement Sunday.

Bond, who was the SPLC’s first president, died Saturday night in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, after a brief illness, the statement said.

In a post titled We’ve lost a Champion, the center’s co-founder Morris Dees writes: “With Julian’s passing, the country has lost one of its most passionate and eloquent voices for the cause of justice.

“He advocated not just for African Americans, but for every group, indeed every person subject to oppression and discrimination, because he recognized the common humanity in us all.

“Not only has the country lost a hero today, we’ve lost a great friend.”

In a post on Twitter, the NAACP said it “mourns the passing of Chairman Julian Bond, civil rights titan and our brother. May he rest in eternal peace.”

Bond, a Nashville, Tennessee native, was considered a symbol and icon of the 1960s U.S. civil rights movement. As a Morehouse College student, he helped found the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and as its communications director, he was on the front lines of protests that led to the nation’s landmark civil rights laws.

Bond later served as board chairman of the 500,000-member NAACP for 10 years but declined to run again in 2010. He also served in the Georgia state legislature and was a professor at American University and the University of Virginia.

In a statement, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which works for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, said: “Very few throughout human history have embodied the ideals of honor, dignity, courage and friendship like Dr. Julian Bond.

“Quite simply, this nation and this world are far better because of his life and commitment to equality for all people. Future generations will look back on the life and legacy of Julian Bond and see a warrior of good who helped conquer hate in the name of love. I will greatly miss my friend and my hero, Dr. Julian Bond.”

Bond is survived by his wife, Pamela Horowitz, a former SPLC staff attorney, his five children, a brother and a sister.

Contributing: Associated Press