Clyde Bellecourt, a founder of the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis, is retiring Thursday from the center’s board after serving on it for 48 years.

Bellecourt, a longtime American Indian activist, was a central figure in the creation of the nonprofit, which provides criminal defense for low-income people, particularly people of color.

“There would be no Legal Rights Center, if it wasn’t for Clyde,” said Michael Friedman, the center’s executive director.

In the past half century, the center has represented tens of thousands of clients who cannot afford a lawyer, Friedman said.

The center, which preceded the public defender system, was created by the American Indian Movement, an Indian activist group of which Bellecourt, 81, was also a co-founder, and The Way, a now-defunct black community organization on the city’s North Side. Both groups worked with pro bono lawyer Doug Hall to create the center in 1970. It was initially only funded by contributions from local law firms, Friedman said.

Today it has an annual budget close to $1 million, with roughly half coming from state funds, and half from law firms, foundations and private donors.

In addition to representing clients, the center does restorative justice work, know-your-rights training and other legal advocacy.

There will be an invitation-only program on Thursday in Minneapolis, honoring Bellecourt. Speakers will include U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., a past executive director of the center; senior U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, a former lawyer at the center, and Elaine Salinas, president of MIGIZI Communications.