Politics & Policy

Life Athlete

Wellington Mara was a civil-rights giant.

Rosa Parks and Wellington Mara both died this week, within 24 hours of each other. They were born just three years apart but lived very different lives. She grew up a seamstress who could not drink from the same water fountains as white folks; he was the son of the owner of the New York Giants football team, and attended high school on Park Avenue in Manhattan. In the 1950s, she fought for the basic civil rights of black Americans; at around the same time, he owned the rights to the athletic careers of numerous black Americans.

Rosa Parks died a legend in the fight for civil rights, and rightly so. Her willingness to serve as the personification of the fight against Jim Crow laws in Montgomery, Ala., may seem obvious in retrospect: Who wouldn’t want to change history for the better? But keep in mind that this was not some academic, “good government” kind of exercise. Rosa Parks put her life at genuine risk to win the enforcement of some basic human rights.

It is less well known that Wellington Mara, too, fought to protect human rights. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that we are all endowed by our creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness–and Mara made a point of defending that fundamental right to life. It is interesting that the lengthy obituaries this week discuss many dimensions of Mara–as Catholic, old-school, and a gentleman–but few so much as mention his dedication to the cause of protecting the lives of the unborn.

And this is a cause quite related to that of civil rights for black Americans. In the United States, African Americans represent 12 percent of the population–but account for 32 percent of the abortions. According to the website BlackGenocide.org, abortion has taken more African-American lives since 1973 than AIDS, violence, heart disease, and cancer combined. If it weren’t for abortion, the black population in the U.S. would be one-third larger than it is today. (The website’s name, incidentally, comes from a speech given in 1977 by Reverend Jesse Jackson.)

In an effort to protect these lives, Wellington Mara helped create Life Athletes, a group of professional athletes in support of pro-life principles. When he was honored for this effort in 1999, Mara said: “God has blessed me with a long life. . . . During that lifetime I have formed a clear perception of the absolute sanctity of life and the unshakable conviction that, of all God’s gifts, it is the most precious–and is becoming the most tenuous.”

Mara was passionate and incisive. Commenting on New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s support of legal abortion, he made the following pithy statement: “The Church has never changed its teaching on the sanctity of human life–it didn’t make up a rule for the convenience of a particular time like a rule at a country club as the Governor would have us believe.” Mara believed that the problem of abortion “cannot be met by act of Congress alone”–and he worked to change the culture. He didn’t just complain–he did something. He created Life Athletes to, in his words, “give the youth of America the ultimate means with which to confront and vanquish the Culture of Death which threatens them.”

A few weeks ago radio personality Bill Bennett was taken to task for a remark relating to the diminished crime rate that would result from aborting black babies. The consternation over Bennett’s comments points to a reality that too many Americans forget: The abortion statistics all relate to real human lives. Why would people be upset about Bennett’s comments, unless they believed that real lives were at stake?

That’s the insight both Wellington Mara and Rosa Parks fought for, in trying to extend the protection of the law to those whose rights were not being protected. If we vigorously pursue their combined legacies, think how many millions more black children in America will be free to ride the bus in front.

Charles Millard writes from New York.


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