Thurmond, whose physical and political endurance were legendary - he holds the record for solo Senate filibustering - retired on Jan. 5, 2003, at the age of 100 after more than 48 years in office.
Thurmond died at 9:45 p.m. He had been living in a newly renovated wing of a hospital in his hometown of Edgefield since he returned to the state from Washington earlier this year. Before dying, Thurmond reportedly had a chance to see his newborn grandson - seeing him for the first time, in the last hours of his own life.
As the news spread through Washington, the Senate temporarily suspended debate on Medicare legislation to pay tribute to Thurmond. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist 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.
Born Dec. 5, 1902, in Edgefield, S.C., James Strom Thurmond — Strom was his mother's maiden name — was elected county school superintendent, state senator and circuit judge before enlisting in the Army in World War II. He landed in Normandy as part of the 82nd Airborne Division assault on D-Day, and won five battle stars and numerous other awards.
The war over, he returned home to resume his political career and won election as governor in 1946. His record was progressive by contemporary standards for a Southern Democrat.
He pushed for repeal of the poll tax and boosted education spending. He called for forceful prosecution after a black man, a murder suspect, was lynched by a mob. The result was a trial at which 31 white men were defendants.
Thurmond ran for president as a Dixiecrat in 1948 and won 39 Southern electoral votes as part of a states-rights uprising against President Harry Truman's support for civil rights.
"I want to tell you," he declared in one speech in 1948, "that there's not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches."
But his 1950 defeat in a bid for reelection as governor came at the hands of an opponent who made an issue of Thurmond's appointment of a black physician to a state medical advisory board.
After defeat, he returned home to practice law.
But in 1954, Sen. Burnet Maybank died unexpectedly. When party officials tapped a state lawmaker to run for the post, Thurmond challenged as a write-in candidate, saying the voters, not the party's leaders, should decide who got the nomination. To underscore his credentials as an insurgent, he pledged to resign his seat before seeking re-election in 1956.
He won, the only person in history to capture a seat in Congress by write-in. Two years later, he kept his pledge to resign before running for the four years remaining in the term.
Thurmond arrived in Washington with a nationwide reputation. The civil rights movement was gathering steam, but he held fast to his segregationist views for years.
He was a leader in drafting the Southern Manifesto of 1956, in which Southern lawmakers vowed resistance to the Supreme Court's unanimous school desegregation order. In 1957, he staged a record, 28-hour nonstop filibuster against housing legislation that he denounced as "race mixing."
Like many one-time segregationists, Thurmond insisted the issue wasn't race but "federal power vs. state power" — though the state power he wanted to preserve was the power to segregate.
"The question of integration was only one facet of that matter," he said in a November 1992 interview.
Thurmond decision to switch to the GOP in 1964 switch anticipated a broader trend. Once a Democratic stronghold, by the 1990s, the South favored the GOP, and Republican candidates generally triumphed in statewide races in South Carolina.
It was not the last switch he made.
"Thurmond said one time, politicians don't last if they don't change," said CBS News Early Show contributor Craig Crawford. "In many ways he was the perfect politician. He represented his voters very well. When blacks were not voting in South Carolina and white supremacists were largely his constituents, he was a white supremacist. When blacks started voting, he changed."
Thurmond became the first Southern senator to hire a black aide, supported the appointment of a black Southern federal judge and voted to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday.
But he remained a die-hard conservative. His voting record was pro-defense, anti-communist and staunchly conservative. In his final campaign, for his eighth Senate term, in 1996, he told voters: "We cannot and I shall not give up on our mission to right the 40-year wrongs of liberalism."
Age took its inevitable toll on Thurmond as he neared retirement, and he was guided through the Capitol in a wheelchair. Yet he wielded political power virtually to the end, prevailing upon President Bush to appoint his 29-year-old son, Strom Jr., as U.S. Attorney in South Carolina in 2001.
Showing how much his world had changed, in 1977, Thurmond's young daughter, Nancy, 6, enrolled in a public school in Columbia, S.C., that was 50 percent black. The girl's teacher also was black.
Thurmond's first wife, Jean Crouch, was 23 years his junior. The couple married in 1947, and she died of a brain tumor in 1960.
His second wife, former beauty queen Nancy Moore, was 44 years younger than Thurmond when they were married in 1968. Thurmond was 68 when their first child, Nancy, was born. The couple had three other children before separating in 1991: Strom Jr., Juliana and Paul. Nancy died in 1993 after being struck by a car.