February 24th marks 53 years since the Supreme Court ruled in ‘Tinker’ that students “may not be confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved.” (Tinker, 1969)
Students, teachers and administrators who learn about the ruling don’t always learn its connection to Black history, and to the students who gave their lives to promote racial justice.
The first time we heard of black armbands was September, 1963, when we wore them to a Des Moines memorial service for Cynthia, Addie Mae, Carole and Denise– Black girls who were murdered when White supremacists bombed their church, the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
The church had been the headquarters of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, which we had seen on the news. We saw the youths, some as young as 9 or 10 years old, marching for racial justice, and then attacked by German Shepherd dogs and fire hoses. We thought the kids were so brave and amazing.
The next summer, through a daring project called Mississippi Freedom Summer, youth stood up for racial justice again. Organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), college students across the country went to Mississippi to register Black voters and run “freedom schools.”
The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO called clergy to Mississippi to show support. My father, Leonard Tinker, was a Methodist minister, and both of my parents had a deep faith. By this time, our family was also involved with the Quakers.
Answering the call from COFO, my parents went to Mississippi that summer and came home on my 12th birthday. When they told us kids the incredible story of Mississippi Freedom Summer, we were so proud of our brave parents. My mother said that the heroic Fannie Lou Hamer, who had just returned from the cataclysmic Democratic convention in Atlanta, cooked chicken dinner for my parents in her home.
That fall, to protest the murders of Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman, Black high school students in Philadelphia, Mississippi wore buttons to school saying, “One Man, One Vote SNCC”. When the principal said that they could not wear those to school, the students initiated a court case (Burnside v Byars).
In 1966, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the students, saying that they should have been allowed to wear the buttons because they had not substantially disrupted school. That ruling would be quoted by Justice Abe Fortas in the Tinker ruling in1969, creating a standard for free speech in schools that is still in place today.