Julian Bond, a champion of equal rights, died Saturday in Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

His wife of 24 years, Pamela Horowitz, was leaving the intensive care unit when a nurse stopped her, the first admirer to offer condolences.

“She told me, ‘I want you to know it was a privilege to take care of him,’ ” recalls Horowitz, voice wavering. “She said, ‘As a gay American, I thought he was a hero.’ And for her to say that, for her to be the last person who was with him, I thought it was a nice way to end.’”

Bond was a former chairman of the NAACP, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center and a prominent fighter for social justice since the 1960s civil rights movement.

He strove to vanquish discrimination against anyone who knew oppression, his friends and family said, recently advocating for gay couples who wished to marry. He’d snap pictures with anyone on the street. He talked to the president.

“Justice and equality was the mission that spanned his life – from his leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to his founding role with the Southern Poverty Law Center, to his pioneering service in the Georgia legislature and his steady hand at the helm of the NAACP,” President Obama said in a statement Sunday. “Michelle and I have benefited from his example, his counsel, and his friendship – and we offer our prayers and sympathies to his wife, Pamela, and his children.”

Bond, who was 75, fell ill suddenly Wednesday from complications related to vascular disease, his wife said. In his final days, she said, he remained an optimist, finding reasons to laugh.

“He had a wonderful sense of humor,” Horowitz said. “You know, that got him through the serious things he dealt with all his life. He used to joke that on his tombstone, one side would say ‘Race man’ and the other side would say, ‘Easily amused.’ ”

Bond rose to national prominence a half-century ago as a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta. He helped start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which gave young black Americans a revolutionary loudspeaker during the civil rights movement.

Joyce Ladner, a fellow SNCC activist and former interim president of Howard University, recalls what motivated her friend through threats and fear.

“We’d all been influenced by seeing our own parents grasp for justice and equality and were always denied it,” said Ladner, who met Bond in 1962. “Julian never wavered in his fight for justice: We were going to right the wrongs. We were going to destroy segregation and racial brutality.”

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga), who defeated Bond in a 1986 congressional race that pitted the civil rights leaders against each other, recently saw his friend at a dinner in Atlanta. They reminisced about the signs that once divided Americans, the signs they fought to tear down: White men. Colored men. White women. Colored women.

“I said it to Julian back in March that the only place our children and their children will see those signs is in a book, in a museum or in a video,” Lewis said. “They’re gone, and they will not return.”

Clayola Brown, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a labor rights group, said Bond helped start a fire that blazes across social media today.

“He was one of the architects of the Black Lives Matter movement before there was a hashtag,” said Brown, a family friend. “His presence is no longer with us, but his voice will remain echoed through the work we and others do in civil rights movement.”

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group, called Bond a “warrior for good.”

“Very few throughout human history have embodied the ideals of honor, dignity, courage, and friendship like Julian Bond,” he said Sunday in a statement. “Quite simply, this nation and this world are far better because of his life and commitment to equality for all people.”

Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, wrote that Bond was a trailblazer for equality and inclusion.

“As one who came out of the immediate generation after him, I grew up admiring and studying the work of Julian Bond and the country has lost a champion for human rights,” Sharpton said in a statement. “The work of Mr. Bond will be missed but not forgotten as we march forward for civil rights.”

Paul Gaston, a history professor who worked with Bond at the University of Virginia, said he was heartbroken Sunday morning to learn about Bond’s death. Gaston praised the way Bond made the subject of civil rights understandable to everyone, on the national stage or in the classroom.

“He was one of the most popular teachers because he kept telling truths,” Gaston said. “He opened students’ eyes to a world that was foreign to many of them. They told me they were very grateful for that course because it changed their lives.”

Filmmaker Aviva Kempner, a family friend, said Bond felt intense responsibility to set an example.

“Every time we walked around in D.C., some would stop him and say ‘Hi, Mr. Bond,’ or ‘Thank you, Mr. Bond,’ or ‘Can we take a picture?'” Kempner said. “He was never rude to anyone. He always gave them a piece of his time. He knew he represented the great advancements of civil rights. He also knew we have a lot of work to do.”

Remembrances continue to flood the Internet:

Victoria St. Martin contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of filmmaker Aviva Kempner.