Nellie Gray: A Portrait of Perseverance in the Quest for Civil Rights

July 8, 2022 Updated: July 8, 2022


On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 50-year-old Roe v. Wade decision—ironically on the day of the birth of one of America’s most tenacious pro-life activists, Nellie Gray—who was born on June 24, 1924. I say ironically because there was no one who fought harder to bring about the day Roe would cease to exist than her.

Nellie, who passed away in 2012, was working as an attorney in the federal government when the 1973 Roe decision came down, allowing abortion nationwide via judicial fiat. She was aghast, telling a television interviewer, “It was such a shock to think that anyone would kill an innocent human being.” Nellie, being Nellie, couldn’t stand by and watch what she believed to be grievous inhumanity continue.

A faithful Catholic, she quit her well-paying job and dedicated the rest of her life to the pro-life cause. Her raison d’être became the overturn of Roe. It was her passionate, unwavering, everyday vocation. Her determination led to her being referred to as the “Joan of Arc of the pro-life movement.” In fact, it was Nellie who coined the term “pro-life” in response to the media’s preferred term: “anti-abortion.”

I knew Nellie well and worked closely with her from my perch coordinating President George W. Bush’s annual remarks to the March for Life for eight years.

Nellie was a tough cookie; she had no problem sharing her opinion with others. Her forthrightness would sometimes rub even her friends the wrong way. She wasn’t willing to compromise with anyone, including her pro-life allies, on any abortion exception, such as for the life of the mother. You could disagree with her, and most pro-life advocates did on that issue, but you couldn’t argue with her perseverance and determination.

Nellie reminded me of Mattie Ross, the chief protagonist in the novel “True Grit,” who at several key turns had to buck up U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, reminding him of the ultimate goal of their common quest and not the other way around.

Nellie was the Mattie Ross of the pro-life movement, never for a moment losing sight of the ultimate goal of overturning Roe despite decades of disappointment and hairpin curves. She was unwavering, principled, single-minded, bold, steadfast, and always moving forward. Her words often cut like a knife with a serrated edge, and she feared no one regardless of the odds she faced.

From her cluttered Washington, D.C. townhome, she launched the annual March for Life, held every year since 1974 on the Jan. 22 anniversary of Roe. The March grew into a nationwide event with thousands flocking to D.C. each year, and was eventually addressed by numerous political figures, including the president of the United States. Every year she would tell the attendees, “We will be here until we overturn Roe v. Wade, and believe me, we are going to overturn Roe v. Wade.” A close friend of hers recalled seeing her working on Washington, D.C. zoning permit applications for the March on Christmas Day. Hers was a single-minded devotion.

And now, her perseverance and determination have been realized. Roe is no more, and our country can once again restore protections for the innocent human beings that Nellie fought so valiantly to protect. The March, along with her persistence and commitment to see a day when Roe was no more, is her legacy.

The March will continue as the battle to defend and protect life plays out in statehouses across the country. Nellie would not have had it any other way. I can imagine her saying, with steely determination, that this is just the beginning of a new battlefront to defend and protect innocent human life and we must soldier on at the state and local levels where the strategic and tactical defense for human life is rapidly shifting.

Like Mattie Ross, Nellie Gray never gave up, even when the odds seemed hopeless and many. All who believe in the sanctity of human life owe her an immeasurable debt of gratitude. She has now become one of American history’s most important and enduring civil rights leaders.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Timothy S. Goeglein is the vice president of government and external relations at Focus on the Family in Washington, DC, and co-author of "American Restoration: How Faith, Family, and Personal Sacrifice Can Heal Our Nation."