March for Life Founder Nellie Gray Dies at 86

By Pete Winn | August 14, 2012 | 6:01 PM EDT

March for Life Founder Nellie Gray. (AP photo)

( – Nellie Gray, founder of the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., passed away Saturday at the age of 86.

“Nellie Gray is one of the pioneers and heroes of the pro-life movement in the United States,” said Dr. Jack Willke, founder of the National Right to Life Committee.

“She sort of came out of nowhere after her retirement as a government employee and began an annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. And that was her total thrust. But it became an annual major show of force – I guess you could say – of interest, of concern for the entire nation,” Willke told

Americans United for Life President Charmaine Yoest expressed “great sorrow” at news of Gray’s death.

“She had a fierce heart that valued all people – born and unborn – fearlessly working to create a picture worth a thousand words -- the sight of hundreds of thousands of peaceful Americans calling on their courts and their legislators to defend life in law," Yoest said.

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said Gray will be remembered most for “her passionate and ardent protection of every life, without exception.”

"Nellie lived a life of heroic service to the unborn,” Perkins said.

March for Life. (AP Photo)

The Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, called Gray a “tireless warrior for the unborn.”

“Every year since 1974, Nellie Gray has mobilized a diverse and energetic army for life,” Pavone said in the statement. “Her own commitment to the cause never wavered. She was a tireless warrior for the unborn and her motto was 'no exceptions.’”

Former presidential candidate Gary Bauer said Gray’s death was “a terrible loss.”

Bauer told that Gray – who was known to pro-lifers simply as “Nellie” – attracted multiple generations to the pro-life message from 1974 to the moment of her death.

“What struck me most about Nellie is that, as she got older, the hundreds of thousands of marchers that came to Washington got younger,” Bauer, the president of American Values, told

“Nellie’s cause, the sanctity of human life, is now more and more accepted by young Americans – completely the opposite of what the cultural elites try to tell us, which is that the young are always for secularism and liberalism. Quite the contrary.”

‘Giving Life to the March for Life’

The cause of death was not immediately known.

A native of Big Spring, Texas, Gray served in World War II in the Women’s Army Corps. An attorney with a master’s degree in economics, she worked for almost 30 years for the State Department and the Labor Department before founding the March for Life in 1974 – and emerging as its leader.

Held each year in January on the anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision allowing abortion on demand, the annual March for Life has been described as “one of the most widely attended but peaceful” protests held in Washington, D.C., each year.

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The 2012 March for Life attracted an estimated 400,000 pro-life participants to Washington.

“Nellie had a specific niche – she did not vary from that niche,” Bauer said. “She resolved to every January mark the disaster of Roe vs. Wade by holding up the banner in Washington, D.C., and urging all who agreed with her to rally around that banner.

“She did it year in, year out. She rejected any advice to move that march into the Spring when the crowds would be bigger. She said, ‘No. We’re going to mark that terrible day, so that no one ever forgets what happened in Roe vs. Wade.’”

Dr. Willke, the current president of the Life Issues Institute and one of the founding fathers of the pro-life movement, said Gray’s march started out with “a few of us veterans” – around 20,000 people -- but now regularly attracts hundreds of thousands of people from all across the country to Washington.

“When she began, stopping abortion in America probably had only about 20 percent approval,” Willke told “Today, it’s over 60 percent– and it’s increasing. And the reason it’s increasing is that young people have changed their minds (about abortion).”

He explained: “It used to be the vast majority high school students and college-age students were pro-abortion. Now only a small percent are. And the age group that is pro-abortion is slowly aging and passing from the scene.”

AUL’s Yoest said the March for Life has been “a visual reminder of the broken hearts of millions of Americans who continue to struggle with the callous attitude of the abortion industry toward unborn children and their vulnerable mothers.”

March for Life. (AP Photo)

The March for Life has been dogged from its inception by the hostile news media, according to Bauer, which have either ignored the march or misreported the event’s turnout.

“The same news media that completely exaggerates things like the Million Man March and Occupy Washington DC, or Occupy Wall Street, or whatever, constantly downplayed the numbers that Nellie would bring to Washington year after year, in the middle of January,” Bauer said.

Some of the worst coverage, he said, has come from the local media in Washington, which includes the Washington Post.

“The local media would report on that day, ‘Pro- and anti-choice demonstrators turned out in Washington, D.C. today’ – as if 50 demonstrators in favor of abortion somehow equaled the 500,000 or so that were there marching for the sanctity of life,” Bauer said.

Plans for the 2013 March for Life are already underway. Yoest said pro-lifers expect the rally to go on as scheduled – and to continue until abortion comes to an end.

“When we march this January in solemn commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Roe, we will miss Nellie and her unflagging determination to press on toward the goal. But march we will, with deep gratitude for the example she set of sacrifice and commitment to the human rights struggle of our day,” Yoest said.

For Tony Perkins of Family Research Council, meanwhile, Gray’s death provides a good opportunity for all Americans to examine their consciences -- and for pro-lifers to examine their commitments.

“As we approach the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the sad reality that 54 million babies have been lost to abortion in America , let us pay appropriate homage to Nellie by recommitting ourselves to do everything possible to protect and defend the unborn.”

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