Nellie Gray, founder of the U.S. March for Life, dead at 86
But every Jan. 22 since 1974, the year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, tens and hundreds of thousands of Gray’s pro-life family joined her to demand an end to legal abortion in the United States.
Gray, a lawyer and former federal employee, quit her job after the Court’s decision, and dedicated her life to overthrowing it, bringing about legal protection for the unborn.
About 20,000 people attended the first March for Life in 1974. Today, estimates range between 250,000 and 400,000 people, mostly youth, at the annual event. Gray founded the event, was its chief organizer, and, despite an injury a few years ago when she slipped on the dais where pro-life, religious and political leaders spoke, continued to host the March for Life in the cold and often wet Washington winter.
The March is the largest annual event in the American pro-life calendar and one the longest continuous running manifestations in America. She founded the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, of which she served as president until her death.
Her often used phrase “no exceptions, no compromise” summed up her philosophy that nothing short of total victory was the goal. She did not mince words, calling abortion genocide at the most recent March and describing the abortion license as “an evil imposed upon our country.”
Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, told the Associated Press, “the indelible mark she has left in this world can be seen in the generations of lives saved as a result of her dedicated work on behalf of the unborn.”
Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life told LifeSiteNews that, “every year since 1974, Nellie Gray has mobilized a diverse and energetic army for life.” He said attending the March as a teen confirmed his decision to become a priest and dedicate his life to the pro-life cause.
Campaign Life Coalition national president Jim Hughes regularly attended the March for Life and became a friend of Gray’s. He said she had a “dynamite personality” and was a unifying force within the large and often divided American pro-life movement. “The March for Life in Washington is one of the few places you get to see all the pro-life leaders,” he told The Interim.
Hughes said, “she has left a tremendous legacy and she will be greatly missed.”The conservative American website National Review Online ran a symposium of 24 pro-life leaders expressing their appreciation of Gray and assessing her legacy.
Tim Soccoccia, a board member of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, said when “a small group of concerned citizens gathered in Nellie Gray’s dining room in 1973 to discuss the problem of abortion, no one imagined the conversation would mark the start of the most significant pro-life event in the United States, the March for Life.”
Penny Young Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, said Gray “was like a modern-day Queen Esther,” as “she stood firm and told the truth to the leaders of our nation about the destruction of the unborn.”
Michael J. New, an academic and scholar, said the March is symbolically important and “has intrinsic value” to its participants because it “sends a clear and unambiguous message … the pro-life movement is here to stay.” New said, “we come to support the weakest among us and protest a tragic and indefensible Supreme Court decision.”
Melinda Delahoyde, president of Care Net, said “the March for Life is a living picture of pro-life Americans standing together to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.” She added both the March and Gray’s example “motivated, energized, and inspired generations of life-affirming leaders and local activists.”
Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life, said pro-life youth, who are typically surrounded by hostile forces on campus, are thankful to Gray for the opportunity and “joy” to be “surrounded by 400,000 other people who are just as passionate as you to abolish abortion.” Hawkns said Gray’s “passion and perseverance … inspires us all to dedicate our lives to finishing what she started.”
Connie Marshiner, a Washington pro-life activist, described the March as a “rite of passage for pro-life youth.”
Georgette Forney, co-founder of the Silent No More Awareness Campaign, said Gray welcomed the women and men who had abortions and regretted their actions. “She embraced us and gave us a platform to share our message of regret and hope,” Forney said, noting that she invited the Silent No More women to lead the March for Life each year.
Soccoccia said because of the March and Gray’s no compromise example, “Roe v. Wade is not settled law” in America. Scott Klusendorf, president of the Life Training Institute, said the March “has reminded the nation that the abortion debate is not going away.”
Edward T. Mechmann of the Family Life/Respect Life Office of the Archdiocese of New York, said “Nellie Gray was an ordinary woman called by God to do exceptional work.” Fr. Bill Mscamble, president of Faculty for Life, said “Gray’s leadership … speaks to what one determined person can accomplish with God’s grace.”
The 2013 March for Life will mark the 40th anniversary of Roe, the 39th anniversary of the first March for Life, and it will be the first one without Nellie Gray. Mechmann said, “the March goes on.”
Hughes told The Interim the National March for Life in Ottawa is largely modeled on the March for Life in Washington, with a vigil, banquet, speeches from dignitaries, and a march through the nation’s capital – even having the women and men of Silent No More lead the march. Hughes said, “just like the American March, the Canadian one started very small and grew.” Both events, he said, are important unifying rallying points for the country’s pro-life movements.
Hughes said, “May her spirit live on in all of us and may she rest in peace knowing she has successfully passed the gauntlet to a new generation of pro-lifers.”
Gray was born in Big Spring, Texas in 1926 and served in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. She later earned a law degree from Georgetown and worked in the state and labour departments.