Abdias do Nascimento, 97, a Brazilian writer, painter, politician, and scholar who was an outspoken civil rights leader on behalf of black Brazilians, has died in Rio de Janeiro.

Sources differ on the date of death, saying it was either May 23 or 24. The cause was complications of diabetes, said Anani Dzidzienyo, a friend who as a professor of Brazilian studies at Brown University has written about Mr. Nascimento.

For decades, Mr. Nascimento was a dissident voice in a Brazilian society that for most of the 20th century was identified by its government and perceived by much of its population as a racial democracy. Mr. Nascimento maintained, in both his art and his political rhetoric, that Brazil remained, in fact, a racist society.

"He was a legend," Edward E. Telles, a professor of sociology at Princeton and the author of Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil, said of Mr. Nascimento in a telephone interview. "From the 1930s through the 1990s, Brazil was considered a racial democracy, but nobody talked about race, and there was a clear racial hierarchy. Poor people were predominantly black, and the elites were almost all white. He wasn't afraid to tell people that racial democracy was a myth. And he said it for 60 years."

In 1944, Mr. Nascimento founded the Black Experimental Theater in Rio de Janeiro, a troupe that celebrated Brazil's African-influenced culture. It trained black citizens as actors in defiance of the custom of casting white actors in blackface.

As an actor, he performed in Orfeu da Conceicao, the play by Vinicius de Moraes that became the basis of the 1959 film Black Orpheus, directed by Marcel Camus. The troupe also sponsored civil rights events, including the first Congress of Brazilian Blacks, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1950.

In 1945, Mr. Nascimento helped found the Afro-Brazilian Democratic Committee to fight for the release of political prisoners. - N.Y. Times News Service