Knights have supported the March for Life, the largest pro-life demonstration in the United States, since the very beginning
By Andrew Fowler
It takes the average person nearly 2,000 steps to walk a mile, the distance which pro-life demonstrators walk each January as they start at the National Mall and make their way to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. Multiply that by hundreds of thousands of people and that’s hundreds of million steps for life.
With the largest national pro-life event marking its 48th year in 2021, demonstrators have taken billions of steps for the tens of millions of babies aborted in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion across the United States. And no small amount of those steps have been walked by Knights of Columbus members.
Since the very first march in 1974, the March for Life has been a vital part of Knights’ efforts to defend life from conception to natural death. Today, the March for Life is featured as part of the Order’s Faith in Action program, through which councils are encouraged to participate in or sponsor demonstrations in the U.S., Canada, the Philippines and other places around the world.
As March for Life president Jeanne Mancini said about the Knights of Columbus’ participation, without the K of C “there would be no March for Life.” And no weather, no pandemic, no circumstance has stopped the Knights from taking a stand for life.
From the Living Room to the Capitol
The March for Life had humble origins. Pro-life activists, including Knights, were debating how to mark the one-year anniversary of Roe v. Wade and decided to contact Nellie Gray, a longtime Department of Labor employee and Catholic attorney. New York members of the Knights of Columbus knew Gray and her interest in pro-life causes following her work at the Nuremberg Trials — which recounted the tragedies of the Holocaust.
She said in a 2010 Catholic News Service profile, “I received a call from [some] Knights of Columbus. I didn’t even know who they were, but they explained their stance against abortion and needed a place to meet to discuss plans for a march. That place was my living room.”
Gray and 30 other activists gathered at her home on Capitol Hill, and she was named president of the March for Life. When the first march was held on Jan. 22, 1974, Gray thought that they “were going to march one time and Congress would certainly pay attention to 20,000 people coming in the middle of winter” in order to overturn the Court’s decision.
Since then, pro-life demonstrators have made their voices heard at nearly 50 annual marches. In the early years, thousands of Knights and their families marched carrying “Respect Life” banners. The Knights also co-sponsored rosary rallies held congruent to the March for Life and, in 1978, Bishop Charles Greco, then-supreme chaplain for the Order, delivered an opening prayer at a pro-life rally on the eve of the march, pleading for God to give “courage, the perseverance and the resources” to those standing up for life.
“To a great number of American citizens, [the legality of abortion] is an issue that cannot be swept under the rug because it is a matter of life and death,” said then-Supreme Knight Virgil Dechant at the Supreme Convention in 1978. “The advancements of medical science emphasize with renewed assurance that the human fetus has a separate life from the moment of conception.”
By 1979, the Fourth Degree Knights officially adopted the March for Life as one of their programs, seeing it as their duty to protect and defend innocent life; meanwhile, the Order passed a resolution at that year’s Supreme Convention to support “all pro-life groups which expose the inherent evil of abortion and seek to change both the laws and social attitudes,” especially the March for Life.
Building a Culture of Life
The Knights are a visible presence at the national march. Thousands of “Defend Life” or “Love Life, Choose Life” signs with the K of C emblem are scattered over the mass of people making their way to the Supreme Court. Councils from across the U.S. carry their own homemade banners or wear K of C attire. Some go on cross-country pilgrimages to arrive at the national March, like John Moore from Fray Marcos Council 1783 in Gallup, N.M., who walked 28,000 miles to pray for the unborn.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Virginia Knights volunteer as marshals, directing attendees to rally locations, escorting speakers, serving at first-aid tents and keeping marchers organized behind the “March for Life” banner for years. The night before the march, College Knights from the Catholic University of America are among the volunteers ushering at the National Prayer Vigil for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
“Some of us have been coming back for more than 40 years now,” Supreme Knight Anderson said at the 46th March for Life. “But the really great news is that you, the pro-life generation, aren’t going to wait that long. You won’t have to wait that long to win justice for the unborn and compassionate care for their mothers. Why? Because of the progress we’ve made in rebuilding a culture of life.”
He believes that one day marchers will walk down Pennsylvania Avenue “not in protest, but in celebration.”
Polling suggests that the day of celebration could be close. K of C-sponsored Marist Polls have found that a large majority of Americans want the Supreme Court to re-examine Roe v. Wade to either allow states to decide on abortion restrictions themselves or to ban the procedure entirely.
"Why is public opinion turning toward life? Because you stand up for life,” Supreme Knight Anderson said at the March for Life in 2015. “Because no amount of propaganda can cover up the pain of women who regret their abortion. And because when women know the truth, they choose life."
For his decades-long commitment to pro-life work, Supreme Knight Anderson will be honored at this year’s March for Life with the 2021 Pro-Life Legacy Award, an award recognizing a lifetime of exceptional work advocating for the inherent dignity of the human person and the right to life of the unborn.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has paused many events throughout 2020 and 2021, the March for Life and the Knights of Columbus are pressing forward with their crusade for life. The theme for this year’s march — Together Strong: Life Unites — is an encouragement for Knights, their families and friends to participate in the event either in-person (while following social distancing protocols) or virtually.
The March for Life will be held on Jan. 29, 2021. And just like those early steps taken in 1974, Knights will march so that every child can have a chance to embrace God’s great gift to humanity: the gift of life.
Want to participate in the March of Life this year virtually? Learn more here.
Originally published in a weekly edition of Knightline, a resource for K of C leaders and members. To access Knightline’s archives, click here. Or, share your story by emailing email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.