Former South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond (search), the nation's longest-serving senator and former "Dixiecrat" (search) candidate for the presidency, died Thursday in Edgefield, S.C. He was 100.

Thurmond died at 9:45 p.m. after being in poor health in recent weeks, said his older son, Strom Thurmond Jr. Born Dec. 5, 1902, Thurmond had been living in a newly renovated wing of a hospital in his hometown of Edgefield (search) since he returned to the state from Washington in early 2003.

"Surrounded by family, my father was resting comfortably, without pain, and in total peace," Thurmond Jr. said in a statement released by the hospital.

The Senate temporarily suspended debate on Medicare legislation to pay tribute to Thurmond. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) said, "Strom Thurmond will forever be a symbol of what one person can accomplish when they live life, as we all know he did, to the fullest." Frist, R-Tenn., then led the Senate in a moment of silence.

"He had enthusiasm and passion like no one I've ever met in my life," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (search), R-S.C., who replaced Thurmond in the Senate. "South Carolina's favorite son is gone but he'll never be forgotten."

Thurmond's career in public service stretched over almost 70 years, from his election to the South Carolina State Senate (search) in 1933 to his retirement from the U.S. Senate (search) in January 2003.

Photo Essay: The Life of Strom Thurmond

Far from a political wallflower, he was a populist firebrand famous for his defense of segregation and opposition to the civil rights movement. Running for the presidency as a States' Rights Democrat, or "Dixiecrat," in 1948, he declared that, "all the laws of Washington, and all the bayonets of the Army, cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches and our places of recreation."

However, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965, Thurmond's politics shifted with the growing number of black voters. Having switched to the Republican party one year earlier, he found federal money to provide services for his black constituents, and became the first Southern senator to hire black staff members — in 1971 — and appoint blacks to high positions.

Thurmond was born James Strom Thurmond — he dropped his first name in 1951 — to John William and Eleanor Gertrude Thurmond.

The second of six children, he attended local elementary and high schools before entering Clemson University, where he received a bachelor's degree in agricultural science and English in 1923.

After college, he taught agriculture and coached athletics at several high schools in South Carolina before being appointed superintendent of schools for Edgefield County in 1928.

While working days as superintendent, he spent nights privately studying law under the tutelage of his father, who had been a state legislator and political aide to Sen. Benjamin R. Tillman. He passed the bar in 1930 and joined his father's law firm, Thurmond and Buzhardt.

Thurmond was elected to the state Senate in 1933 as a Democrat and ardent supporter of the local versions of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Later, the state legislature chose him to serve as a circuit judge in 1938.

When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Thurmond left the bench and joined the Army. He was commissioned as a lieutenant with the First Army's 82nd Airborne Division.

Thurmond participated in the Normandy invasion on D-Day and was awarded five Battle Stars. In all, he earned 18 decorations, medals and awards for his military service. Thurmond served 36 years in Reserve and on active duty, attaining the rank of major general in the U.S. Army Reserve.

After returning to civilian life, Thurmond resumed his political activities by running as a populist candidate for the governor's mansion in South Carolina, positioning himself as an outsider to the coterie of politicians who had long-dominated state politics. He defeated 10 other candidates in the Democratic primary, which was tantamount to winning the governorship.

As governor, he was seen as something of a liberal, increasing spending on health care and education, and eliminating the poll tax, which had been used to limit black voting in the South.

However, as President Truman integrated the Armed Forces and backed federal laws against lynching, the poll tax and racial discrimination, Thurmond organized other Southern politicians against what he saw as an erosion of states' rights.

This spurred his presidential run in 1948. Though he lost to Truman, he won four states and 39 electoral votes — the third largest tally for an independent candidate in U.S. history.

In 1950, he challenged sitting Sen. Olin D. Johnston, losing by 25,000 votes. However, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in a write-in campaign four years later to succeed Sen. Burnet R. Maybank, who had died in office. Thurmond held that seat for the next half-century.

Early in his Senate career, he continued his fight against civil rights. In 1956, he organized the "Southern Manifesto," a document backed by Southern legislators that called the Supreme Court's school desegregation ruling in 1954 a "clear abuse of judicial power."

In 1957, Thurmond set the Senate record for filibustering with a 24-hour, 18-minute speech to prevent a vote on a civil rights bill backed by the Eisenhower White House.

By 1964, Thurmond had grown disillusioned with the direction of the Democratic Party. Though he had backed Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1960, he refused to campaign for a John F. Kennedy/Johnson ticket. In 1964, he bolted the Democratic Party, and, backing Barry Goldwater for the presidency, joined the Republicans.

The first major Southern political leader to switch from the Democrats to the GOP, his move signaled a significant shift in American politics. The GOP began to appeal to white, Southern conservatives, and a region that had once been exclusively Democratic began turning Republican.

By the end of the 1960s, Thurmond was a force within the Republican Party. His influence helped Richard Nixon get the presidential nomination over Ronald Reagan. During the campaign, he inspired Nixon's tactic of subtly appealing to the racial fears of Southern whites — a tactic that secured him the presidency.

Later in his career, Thurmond backed away from his segregationist past, arguing that he was simply enforcing the laws of the time. When the GOP took control of the Senate in the 1980s, Thurmond became the president pro tempore, placing him third in line for the White House. In March 1996, at age 93, he became the oldest person to serve in Congress. And, when he retired at age 100, he was the longest-serving legislator in the nation's history.

However, his name — and political past — was still potent in American politics even at the end of his tenure in public service. On December 5, 2002, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi told the audience at Thurmond’s 100th birthday party: "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years."

The ensuing controversy forced Lott to resign his position as majority leader.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.