Sadly, we recently had to say goodbye to a dear friend and renowned leader in the pro-life movement, Nellie Gray. Nellie made pro-life history as the person who organized the very first March for Life in Washington DC, which took place on January 22, the year after the Roe v. Wade decision.
On that first March, I was one of the eager participants, as were many other veteran pro-lifers. We gathered on the front steps of the US Capitol Building. Looking back, attendance seemed relatively small; however it progressed rapidly with each passing year. In just a few years, the crowd became too big for the Capitol steps and we couldn’t back up into the lake behind, so the event was moved to the green area behind the White House. Nellie had a platform erected that was approximately twenty feet high. From there, she would broadcast her message to tens of thousands, and ultimately several hundred thousand attendees.
The impact was nationwide. Let me share an example of how this affected my own city of Cincinnati, five-hundred miles away from DC. On the night before the March, high school students who were able to get a day off of class for this “historical event” rallied in downtown Cincinnati, usually at a major church or hall to hear and participate in a pro-life send-off event. In the late evening, the students and adult chaperones then climbed into buses for the long overnight drive, arriving in Washington DC at 6:00 or 7:00 AM. Once there, they off-loaded into a hotel ballroom where they had a hardy breakfast and would hear speakers like Henry Hyde, their Congressmen, their Senators, Barbara, myself and others. Then they walked from the hotel out to the Mall to begin the March by listening to the pro-life speeches. After the speeches, Nellie led the presenters through the crowd and up Pennsylvania Avenue, past the Capitol and then in front of the Supreme Court building, where the infamous pro-abortion ruling was made. From there, the marchers dispersed into the various offices of the Senators and Congressmen on Capitol Hill to encourage their elected representatives to vote for pro-life legislation. Afterwards, they returned to their buses in late afternoon, had a meal and drove back overnight to their homes of Cincinnati. Anyone who participated will be quick to tell you that there wasn’t a whole lot of sleeping on the way back. Rather there was animated talking, singing and an exchange of experiences from the day which none of them will ever forget.
The above scenario occurred in dozens and dozens of cities and towns, small and large and came together to grow into hundreds of thousands of eager young people who made the trip. If they weren’t pro-life when they left, they certainly were when they got back home.
For as long as I knew Nellie, she stood firm in her belief that there must be a human life amendment with no exceptions and that was the continuing and constant theme of her preaching. Not everyone in attendance had the same opinion. Many subscribed to a life of the mother exception to the proposed human life amendment. However, those who had a difference of opinion on this were uniformly gracious, tolerant and respectful. Together we stood united to witness to the right of unborn babies to live and that is the entire message of those who participated in this March.
And so the pro-life movement nationally and internationally has lost one of its pioneers. Nellie was a great lady who had steadfast conviction and never wavered from it. She never profited from this continuing huge adventure, instead choosing to continuously reinvest her efforts into the pro-life mission. Nellie without question has been one of the pioneers, one of the true saints of the pro-life movement. May she rest in peace.