WASHINGTON — As the pro-life movement mourns the death of Nellie Gray, whose name became synonymous with the March for Life, some veteran pro-lifers are remembering where it all began: in Gray’s Capitol Hill dining room.
Gray heard that a small group of New York friends planned to come to town to mark the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion in 1973. Appalled by the ruling, Gray, a government lawyer and convert to Catholicism, who had been told that her friends needed a local address to obtain the necessary permits to march, graciously opened her house to them.
“You need to be careful who you invite into your dining room,” Gray reportedly joked in 2009, when she received the Bishop Thomas J. Welsh Distinguished Service Award at the annual Brent Society awards dinner in Arlington, Va.
Gray, 88, was found dead in that same house Monday, having apparently died over the weekend.
After the initial meeting in 1974, she went on to lead the largest pro-life gathering in the U.S. and built it into the longest-running, most successful annual event in the pro-life movement.
“Since that 1974 event, hundreds of thousands from across the country and around the world have marched on Washington to take a stance against abortion, with Nellie at every march,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington said in a statement. “The event was never a ‘Catholic’ event, but, rather, a time when every pro-life group could come together with one voice for the protection of the unborn."
The March for Life, drawing consistently in recent years more than 250,000 people annually, has become almost a prom for pro-lifers, but with a serious purpose, members of Congress vying to speak, and in some years an address by loudspeaker from the occupant of the White House. The event has also spawned numerous offshoots around the U.S. and abroad.
"Nellie Gray has mobilized a diverse and energetic army for life," said Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, in a statement. "Her own commitment to the cause never wavered. She was a tireless warrior for the unborn, and her motto was: 'No exceptions.'"
Gray was admired by the younger generation of pro-lifers, too, and the march, especially in recent years, was notable for the number of high-school and college-age students it drew.
“Nellie Gray was an inspiration for the whole movement,” said Lila Rose, the president and founder of Live Action, who has become famous for covert video-tapings inside Planned Parenthood. “She created an entry point for talented young people to get involved. The first march I attended, in 2009, was very inspiring. I know the angels are welcoming her into heaven.”
“Nellie Gray began and maintained a purity of intention rare to any human-rights movement,” said Susan B. Anthony List's president, Marjorie Dannenfelser. “She relied upon one power to guide her: the power of the Holy Spirit. She revealed it to be more effective than all the political strategy this world could formulate — as evidenced by the consistent crowds of hundreds of thousands of pro-life Americans at the March for Life in recent years.”
It was an amazing achievement for a woman who never took a salary from the March for Life, did most of the work from her basement, and, in the early years, was the person who had to run all over town obtaining permits and getting routes cleared.
Gray, who was born in Texas, was proud of having served in the Women’s Army Corps (WACS) during World War II. She got a law degree by attending Georgetown University Law School at night. She never married.
“She was insistent that the march always end up in offices of the Congress,” recalled her old friend Connie Mackey. “The importance of this was that people in Congress could see that people came from all over to protect babies.”
The march was always scheduled for a weekday closest to the Jan. 22 Roe anniversary, when members of Congress would be in their offices.
“The other thing was prayer,” Mackey continued. “That’s what was important to Nellie: ending up in the offices of Congress and prayer.”
The march soon became the focus point of Gray’s life.
“She took early retirement, and she said she was going to dedicate the rest of her life to the pro-life movement,” said March for Life board member Terry Scanlon, president of the Capital Research Center. Scanlon, who hadn’t really thought that much about abortion until he heard Gray speak at St. Peter’s Church on Capitol Hill, became involved in 1975.
“She stood like a rock for roughly 40 years against Roe v. Wade and gathered so many thousands of people to the pro-life banner,” said Mary Meehan, the prominent pro-life writer. “She had incredible courage and persistence in the face of enormous difficulties [that come from a largely pro-abortion culture].”
But Meehan saw another side of Gray once, when she drove her to a pro-life event in New Jersey, where they were speaking.
“She could be very warm and funny, but her public persona was very different. It was part of her rock-like presence.”
“If we could bottle her energy, drive and passion and bottle it, we could make billions,” said Bryan Kemper, founder of Rock for Life and youth-outreach director of Priests for Life. He was keynote speaker this year at a youth event co-sponsored by Gray’s March for Life.
Like Meehan, Kemper, who has tattoos and once sported a Mohawk haircut, has seen a lighter side of Gray. “Brian,” she once said, “would you just be willing to go without the nail polish? I can deal with all the rest.” Kemper has not worn nail polish since.
But mostly, she was the rock-like presence. Maria McFadden, whose father, the late James McFadden, founded the Human Life Review, unearthed an old story from 1975 in which Gray said that the administration of former President Gerald Ford was “synonymous with Massacres Unlimited,” because, according to the article, taxpayer money was used for abortions.
Gray opposed incrementalism in the fight to stop abortion.
Many people were critical of this approach, but Lila Rose found it inspiring.
“I loved that about her,” Rose told the Register. “I respected her tremendously. When I’d hear her speak at the Rose Dinner, I’d hear her say, ‘No Exceptions! No Exceptions!’ We need to be reminded of that. It deepened my respect for her every time I’d hear her say that.”
The board of the March for Life was meeting Tuesday in Terry Scanlon’s office. Scanlon said that there is no question but that the march will continue. Kemper agreed. “I know for a fact that it will keep going,” he said. “Even if you tried to put it online that it was canceled, people would still show up. We will make sure that everything she stood for will be honored.”
Gray’s body was discovered the same day that legendary Cosmopolitan magazine editor and author of the (1962) Sex and the Single Girl Helen Gurley Brown died. “Can you think of two more opposite people?” Scanlon said with a chuckle. “It’s a spectacular contrast. That’s all I can say.”
Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.