By Nicole Ziege, F/G Scholar
Des Moines, Iowa, native Mary Beth Tinker, then 13 years old, had just started the eighth grade when the United States officially entered the Vietnam War in 1965. Tinker grew up in a Methodist Christian family with parents who became involved in social issues, like the Civil Rights movement.
Tinker said one of her earliest memories was of her parents visiting Ruleville, Mississippi, to support the 1964 Freedom Summer, an initiative meant to help African Americans register to vote, according to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.
Tinker said her views on the world around her were shaped by her learning about the civil rights movement that took place in the 1960s.
During the summer of 1964, there was a series of racially-motivated riots in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Jersey City, and before that, on Sept. 15, 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed by white supremacists, killing four young African-American girls.
In addition to the protests and riots breaking out in the South between policemen and civil rights protesters, Tinker was also saddened by the Vietnam War. When the U.S. entered the war in 1965, about 170,000 U.S. soldiers were stationed in Vietnam. Graphic footage of the conflict could be seen every day by Americans of all ages as they watched the news on their television sets.
“Us kids were just getting sadder and sadder,” Tinker said. “Kids generally don’t like war. The adults always told us in school to use our words. Why don’t they use their words?”
After attending the Iowans for Peace anti-war rally in November 1965, Tinker and her brothers and sisters were given the idea to wear black armbands to school. She said the armbands represented mourning for the dead in both the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. They planned to wear the armbands on Dec. 16.
However, on Dec. 14, in the Des Moines Register, Tinker and her family saw the news from her school district. All students were prohibited from wearing black armbands.
“The school didn’t really have an issue with students expressing themselves,” Tinker said. “They just wanted it to be about something that they agreed with.”
Although Tinker said she was a shy 13-year-old, she and her brother, John Tinker, wore their black armbands into school. When her teacher saw her armband, she told her to take it off. Tinker quickly took it off, but she was still called down to the vice principal’s office, where she received a pink suspension slip. Four other students were suspended from school and sent home, including John Tinker and Chris Eckhardt.
The five students were told they could not return to school until they removed their armbands. The students returned to school after the Christmas break without armbands, but they decided to wear black clothing for the rest of the school year in protest, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Tinker’s family faced both support and backlash from her community. Her family received a bomb threat on Christmas Eve, they were called communists and Tinker received hate mail decorated with a red hammer and sickle, the infamous symbol of the Communist party.
The court case, Tinker vs. Des Moines, took four years to reach the Supreme Court. On Feb. 24, 1969, the Court ruled 7-2 that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” according to the ACLU.
Tinker, who is now an advocate for First Amendment rights and students’ rights, said she and the students who wore the armbands were just ordinary, middle-class kids. However, Tinker’s case set precedent for following Supreme Court cases, and she hopes to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the ruling next year.
“There’s a long history in our country of civil disobedience,” Tinker said. “It should remain peaceful, and you have to be willing to take the consequences. History doesn’t know how things will go down in the moment so I think you should always stand up for what you believe in.”