07/14/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Love him or hate him, Strom Thurmond certainly had staying power. Known for staging a record 24-hour filibuster against a civil rights bill in 1957, he proved his stamina again last December by celebrating his 100th birthday. But America's longest-serving senator ran out of steam June 26. In a hospital suite in his hometown of Edgefield, S.C., the onetime segregationist firebrand died peacefully of old age. He was "part of a shameful history," says Sen. Lindsey Graham, who replaced the retiring Thurmond in January, "but he also came to represent a better South, characterized by acceptance, tolerance and mutual respect."
A self-taught lawyer and decorated World War II vet, Thurmond was elected governor in 1946 and ran for President on the States' Rights ticket two years later. Though he came in a distant third to Harry S Truman, his million votes—and his fierce opposition to integration—earned him national attention. Thurmond went to the Senate as a Democrat in 1954, then jumped to the Republicans a decade later. He gradually adapted to new political realities, becoming in 1971 one of the first southern senators to hire a black staffer, and supporting the creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But his past remained a land mine. After Sen. Trent Lott toasted Thurmond's '48 campaign last year, he was forced to resign his leadership post in an explosion of protest.
Thurmond himself survived a host of upheavals, including the loss of his first wife, Jean, to cancer in 1960. Eight years later he wed former beauty queen Nancy Moore, 44 years his junior, with whom he had four children. Though he was a teetotaler and fitness buff, the real key to his longevity may have been the adulation of his constituents. Asked in 2001 to write his own epitaph, he offered, "How about, 'He loved the people, and the people loved him.' "