WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Former North Carolina state Rep. Larry Womble, a major advocate for the Racial Justice Act, has died. He was 78.
Womble died Thursday night. The cause of death has not been released.
A Winston-Salem native, he was elected to the North Carolina General Assembly in 1995. He served the 71st District until 2012.
Womble, a Democrat, was the main sponsor of the 2009 Racial Justice Act, which created a new method for death row prisoners to contest their sentences.
He previously served as a city councilman before becoming involved in state politics.
United States Sen. Thom Tillis, R-NC, paid tribute to Womble in a statement:
"Larry Womble will be forever known as the tireless champion for the victims of North Carolina's shameful eugenics and sterilization program," Tillis said. "Larry was relentless in shining a light on one of the darkest moments of our state's history, and he never backed down and never gave up in the pursuit of justice.
"One of the greatest honors of my life was supporting Larry's successful mission to make North Carolina the first state in the nation to provide compensation to the victims of the state-run eugenics program," Tillis added. "Larry had a heart of gold and epitomized what it means to be a servant leader. Susan and I are deeply saddened to lose such a great man, and we send our deepest condolences to Larry's family."
Womble was a tireless advocate who worked to right the stain of eugenics on the state. North Carolina began sterilizations in 1929 as an attempt to cleanse society of those deemed mentally impaired or ill.
The program, also referred to as eugenics, continued well after World War II and targeted the poor. About 7,600 people were sterilized between 1929 and 1975.
"Hopefully it'll bring dignity and recognition to them because it takes a strong person to come forward like they did," Womble said in 2009 at a ceremony unveiling a North Carolina Highway Historical Marker honoring victims. "Most were little boys and girls 11, 12, 13 years old. Now the ugly secret is out and North Carolina is trying to do something to address it."
The North Carolina Democratic Party also issued a statement acknowledging Womble's life and legacy.
"We are deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Rep. Larry Womble. Larry worked tirelessly as an educator and advocate to improve the lives of all North Carolinians," North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said. "On a personal note, I had the honor to serve with him in the legislature for several terms. Larry always stood up for the powerful, positive roles of public schools and North Carolina's HBCUs. He never backed down from a fight and was always honest about his beliefs, even when they weren't always popular. He made a point of giving a voice to the voiceless and, in his own words, to 'make government personal.' We celebrate Larry's life of service and send our best wishes to his friends and family at this difficult moment."