NEW YORK (AP) — The president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has died. He was 65.

The New York-based organization says on its website that John Payton died late Thursday after a brief illness.

President Barack Obama says in a statement that he and his wife were saddened to learn that their “dear friend” had died.

The president calls Payton “a true champion of equality” who “helped protect civil rights in the classroom and at the ballot box.”

Obama says Payton will be remembered for “his courage and fierce opposition to discrimination in all its forms.”

Payton also held the title of director-counsel at the organization.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.