A moment of protest, a lifetime of history
It was a big step for a shy 13-year-old girl whose principal concerns in life was who she would sit beside in algebra and talk to during lunch.
That step Mary Beth Tinker took nearly 51 years ago ultimately led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that would affect every student in this country.
Tinker, in Des Moines on the eve of Constitution Day Sept. 17, said her constitutional legacy on free speech really comes down to speaking out for what you believe in – no matter your age.
The story began in November 1965 when a group of Des Moines students traveled to Washington, D.C., to take part in a peaceful protest of the Vietnam War, where combat was escalating daily. Energized by the experience during the drive home, they came up with a plan to take that activism into the schools. Their plan? Black armbands.
Tinker’s brother, John, was a student at Roosevelt High School while she was a student at Harding Junior High.
“John was one of the instigators in this,” Tinker said. “He had gotten about 50 students to sign up for wearing the armbands.”
Roosevelt’s student newspaper did a story about the upcoming protest, which set in motion a flurry of activity among the school district’s administration. It was decided students would face possible suspension if they chose to participate.
For the most part, that strategy worked. Only a few students dared to wear the armband. Mary Beth Tinker was one of them.
Tinker, who was nervous but determined, made it through the first half of her day with nary a blip. Then, after lunch, she walked to her math class where the teacher, pink slip in hand, was awaiting her.
“I just took the pink slip and went down to the office,” she said. “When I got to the office, I was told to take the armband off and I took it off. I was kind of a good kid who had never caused trouble.
“They then sent me back to math class. And no sooner had I gotten there then I had to go back to the office, where I received my suspension notice.”
The event received lots of media attention – and attention from those they would rather not receive.
“We were receiving threats, threats to bomb our house, someone threw red paint at the house and our car,” Tinker said. “My mother would say in disgust, ‘we are not communists, we are Methodists.’”
The families of the suspended students eventually lawyered up to fight the suspensions, and the rest is constitutional history.
In a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that the armband represented free speech, and that just because students entered a school building doesn’t mean their rights were suspended.
Looking back, Tinker said the events from half a century ago were inspired by her parents. Her Methodist pastor father, in particular, was passionate about speaking your conscience – especially when so many did not when millions were sent to concentration camps in Europe during World War II.
And then there was a chance comment from a school board member.
“He told my dad, ‘do you think you can follow your conscience whenever you want?’ Ah, yes!”
Tinker, a former nurse out of Washington, D.C., who now visits schools throughout the nation to tell her story, was in Des Moines presenting at Des Moines Area Community College. She says her tale is only tangentially constitutional but mostly a civics lesson: how young, emboldened students can speak up and do something relatively small yet receive big-time dividends.
“People think kids don’t notice, but they notice,” she said. “You can make a difference, you can make things better. You have to tune in to what’s going on in the world and how it affects you. If we are fighting a war, that’s taking money away from other things.
“Whatever issues you care about, get up and speak about it,” she said. “You have the power to change things.”