Nelson Mandela, who battled apartheid in South Africa before becoming its first democratic leader, died at his home in South Africa after several months of ongoing health problems. He was 95.
South African President Jacob Zuma announced Mandela's death in an address to the nation late Thursday, saying "we've lost our greatest son."
Speaking from the White House Thursday, President Barack Obama said the former South African president "no longer belongs to us - he belongs to the ages." Leaders from around the globe expressed similar sentiments about one of the world's most beloved statesmen.
"One of the insidious ways that apartheid worked is that it lowered your self-esteem in the beginning and then when you were mistreated you felt like you deserved it," Stengel said. "Mandela never, for one second, felt like he deserved to be mistreated in any way."
One of the nation's first black lawyers, he joined the African National Congress in 1952 and devoted his life to peacefully ending apartheid.
But in 1960, after 69 peaceful black protesters were killed by white South African police in the infamous Sharpeville massacre, Mandela shifted to believe the only recourse was violence.
"There are many people who feel that it is useless and futile for us to continue talking peace and non-violence against a government whose reply is only savage attacks on an unarmed and defenseless people," Mandela said at the time.
Mandela formed a military wing of the ANC, and the man once consumed with guilt for shooting a bird out of a tree became a fully armed freedom fighter. CBS News chief foreign affairs correspondent Lara Logan later covered the movement.
Mandela was, to many, the conscience of the world -- a man who emerged from the tiny South African village where he was born to become a defining figure of our time.
Born Rolihlahla, meaning "troublemaker," on July 18, 1918, in the village of Mvezo, Nelson -- as he was renamed by a school teacher -- moved to Johannesburg at age 23. Mandela biographer Richard Stengel says exposure to the vicious racism of the white regime there permanently shaped him.
USA Today: Nelson Mandela Dies
"He probably will be remembered both inside and outside South Africa as a political saint," said Michael Parks, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for his coverage of Mandela and South Africa's struggles.
"He had flaws that he had to overcome. He had a temper he had to deal with. He had to deal with what was going to be life imprisonment. Not all his decisions were great decisions, but what political leader's are," Parks said.
As a young man, Mandela worked as a lawyer and political activist to dismantle white minority rule under which blacks were denied political rights and basic freedoms. He began by emulating the non-violent methods of India's Mahatma Gandhi. But a turn to violence as the leader of the armed wing of the African National Congress that included a bombing campaign against government targets led to his imprisonment for over a quarter-century.
A worldwide campaign against apartheid pressured the regime into releasing Mandela in 1990 at age 71. He vowed to seek peace and reconciliation with South Africa's whites - but only if blacks received full rights as citizens.
USA Today: 15 Mandela Quotes To Help You Live Better
Amid tense negotiations with the government and the threat of violence on all sides, Mandela emerged as a leader who guided South Africa to a new democratic government guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens. Four years later, Mandela became his nation's first black president.
Mandela's charisma, stoic optimism and conciliation toward adversaries and oppressors established him as one of the world's most recognizable statesmen of the 20th century and a hero of South African democracy.
"If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy," Mandela once said. "Then he becomes your partner."
Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 along with South Africa's president at the time, Frederik Willem de Klerk, for working together to dismantle apartheid.
'LONG ROAD TO FREEDOM'
He was born Rolihlahla Mandela in Mvezo, a village on the Mbashe River in the Transkei region, on the eastern cape of South Africa, in 1918. He lived his earliest years in Qunu, a village so small there were no roads, only footpaths, and families lived in huts. He was a member of the Xhosa-speaking Thembu tribe.
He was baptized in the United Methodist Church and given the name Nelson by a teacher.
His father, a counselor to the tribal chief, died when Mandela was 9. He was adopted by the chief and lived in the more sophisticated provincial capital, where he attended a Wesleyan mission school, learning English and excelling in track and boxing. He studied law at University of Fort Hare and University of Witwatersrand after fleeing to Johannesburg to avoid a marriage arranged by the tribal regent.
There he became involved in the anti-apartheid movement and in 1943 joined the African National Congress, where he became a leader in resistance against the ruling National Party and its apartheid policies.
He was charged with treason in 1956, along with 155 other activists, but the charges were dropped. The government outlawed the ANC in 1960, and Mandela went underground to work against the regime.
Mandela veered from non-violence as a method for change and argued for setting up a military wing of the ANC and violent tactics to bring down apartheid. Meanwhile, opposition to the regime's "pass laws" that dictated where black people were allowed to live and work grew intense, and in 1960, police fired on demonstrators and killed 69 people in what became known as the Sharpeville Massacre.
In 1961, Mandela became the leader of the ANC's armed wing in which he oversaw bomb attacks against government buildings. He was designated a terrorist by the white government and arrested in 1962. In June 1964, he was sentenced along with seven others to life in prison for plotting to overthrow the government through hundreds of acts of sabotage.
"I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities," he said, acting as his own lawyer at his trial. "It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
He spent 18 years of his imprisonment at Robben Island Prison off Cape Town, where the harsh conditions included laboring in a lime quarry. During that time, he became the focus of an international campaign for release led by his life-long friend and law partner, Oliver Tambo, and Mandela's wife, Winnie, whom he married in 1958 after his marriage to first wife Evelyn Mase ended in 1957.
In the 1980s, the ANC under Tambo ramped up bombing attacks to include civilian targets. In one of the worst examples, an ANC car bomb exploded in downtown Pretoria in May 1983, killing 19 people.
In an attempt to calm the violence, President P.W. Botha offered in 1985 to free Mandela if he would renounce violence as a tool for change. Mandela refused.
Demands for Mandela's release became a popular civil rights cause in the Western world in the 1980s, along with calls for an end to apartheid from the United States and other nations. Worldwide economic sanctions against South Africa were tightened.
In the USA, public demonstrations and civil disobedience, often led by celebrities, were staged outside the South African government's diplomatic offices and other institutions aimed at pressuring the regime to free Mandela and abolish racial separatism laws. Under pressure from foreign nations and both whites and blacks in South Africa, de Klerk freed Mandela in 1990 and lifted the ban on the ANC.
Parks said Mandela's long imprisonment was a transformative experience in which he accepted his plight and found ways to use it to advance the cause of a multiracial South African future.
"What he did on Robben Island, he created essentially a school for the young black men who were sentenced for their activities by the apartheid government," Parks said. It was, he added, "a school that trained them to look forward with optimism, to adhere to the ANC's strong belief that South Africa belonged to all the people who lived in it, black and white together."
Mandela emerged into a movement that had been scandalized by charges of heavy-handed tactics by Mandela's wife Winnie, who had taken a major role in ANC activities while Mandela was in jail. She had publicly justified the murder of her political opponents in the black community, and her bodyguards were accused of terrorizing her adversaries.
She was convicted in 1991 of kidnapping in the murder of a 14-year-old boy accused of being an informant. Her six-year jail term was reduced to a fine on appeal, and Mandela divorced her in 1992.
Two years later, he became president of South Africa. In his inaugural speech, he said the struggle for freedom for blacks was difficult but in the end produced "a united, democratic, non-racial and non-sexist government." He served one term, which ended in 1999.
Parks said Mandela's main accomplishment as president was "not letting the country devolve into a racial war."
"It could have," Parks said. "Everybody thought that was a great danger. In some respects, it was the personality of Mandela and the ANC's commitment to a non-racial society that saw it through."
Mandela retired from political life in 2004, at 85, to spend his final years in what he called "quiet reflection" with his third wife, Graca Machel, the widow of the former president of Mozambique. The two married on his 80th birthday in 1998.
For more on his life, legacy click on USA Today and CBS News.