Hi, my name is Mary Beth Tinker.
Nearly a half-century ago, I was part of a group of students in Des Moines, Iowa who made history by wearing simple black armbands to school. My brother, John, and our friend, Chris Eckhardt, were among the others, along with Chris Singer, Ross Peterson, Bruce Clark, and Perry Hutchison.
At the time, making history was the last thing on our minds.
I was a shy 13-year-old, John had just turned 15, and Chris was 16.But we did make history, eventually winning a landmark Supreme Court ruling in favor of First Amendment rights for students.The year was 1965, when about 1000 soldiers had been killed in Vietnam. Inspired by an antiwar rally in Washington, DC, we wore the armbands to mourn the dead and to support Robert F. Kennedy’s call for a Christmas truce. A few hours after school started, I was sent out of algebra class and told to remove my armband by the vice principal. I did, but was suspended anyway. Within days, others were punished as well.Four years later, following heated school board meetings, death threats to our families, a fantastic ACLU lawyer named Dan Johnston, and two lower federal court cases, the United States Supreme Court heard our case.
On February 24, 1969 — we won. But the victory wasn’t ours alone. In fact, it was a victory for American education, with Abe Fortas’ famous ruling that neither students or teachers “shed their Constitutional rights…at the schoolhouse gate” and that “students in school as well as out of school are ‘persons’ under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State. In our system, students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate.”
The Tinker ruling is still cited in nearly every student First Amendment case (almost 6000 times, according to Lexus-Nexus) and almost all American civics and history textbooks. It’s popular for History Day projects ,too!
I have spent my career as a pediatric nurse, but I also speak frequently with students about our case and the Constitution because civics education is in dire straights. A recent study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center shows that only one-third of Americans can name the three branches of government, and another third can’t name any. One-third think the president has final say over decisions, and Supreme Court decisions can be appealed.
So, I’ve decided to do more. Along with attorney Mike Hiestand, who has helped 15,000 students, teachers and administrators navigate student speech issues over the past two decades, we are traveling the country on the “Tinker Tour” — a journey across the country to promote youth voices, free speech and a free press.
During the fall of 2013, after kicking off our tour on Constitution Day at the National Constitution Center next to the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, we traveled 15,595 miles across the American east coast, midwest and southeast speaking to more than 20,000 students and teachers at 58 stops, including schools, colleges, churches, a youth detention facility, courts and several national conventions. During the spring of 2014, we are scheduled to visit schools and events in the American west, midwest and southwest.
The goal of the Tinker Tour is to bring real-life civics lessons to schools and communities through my story and those of other young people. I made a difference with just a simple, black armband. Can you imagine what a shy 13-year-old could do today with all of the extraordinary speech tools available? We look forward to encouraging her — and sharing real-life stories about how students are keeping the First Amendment alive today.
The Tinker Tour is civics education come to life! It generated enthusiasm for the issues we all care about in a very real and direct way. (We even had a “theme song” created for us!)
This spring, as Mike and I are making plans to continue the tour west of the Mississippi, we are asking for your help.
We are delighted that the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit organization with nearly four decades of experience supporting youth voices, is helping us organize and promote the tour, as well as making a modest donation. They will also help collect funds under their 501(c)(3) umbrella, which will provide donors with tax benefits.
The Tinker Tour has been endorsed by many of the country’s leading civics education, civil rights and journalism education and journalism groups. We are very proud of those endorsements, and grateful. But endorsements alone don’t pay the bills.
This is an important moment in the history of our country, especially for youths, who are naturally creative and hopeful, but often feel discouraged. They need to hear about young people throughout history — and today — who bring the Constitution to life and make a difference. And we need to hear them. On the Tinker Tour, we will!