John Payton,65 , a well-known civil rights attorney , President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc died last night following a brief illness, the organization confirmed .

As leader of the Legal Defense and Educational fund, the nation’s first and preeminent civil rights law firm Payton guided the organization to significant legal victories such as Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the Supreme Court upheld race-conscious admissions in higher education, in support of the educational benefits of diversity.

Payton was a “true champion of equality,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. “The legal community has lost a legend, and while we mourn John’s passing, we will never forget his courage and fierce opposition to discrimination in all its forms.”

Payton leaves behind his wife, Gay McDougall.