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 black armbands to school to mourn the Vietnam War dead, and support a Christmas truce. My brother, John, and our friend, Chris Eckhardt, were among the others, along with Chris Singer, Ross Peterson, Bruce Clark, and Perry Hutchison. Even my little sister and brother, Hope and Paul, wore armbands, saying “we want peace, too!”
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 was really 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… 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’ve spent my career as a pediatric nurse, but I speak frequently with students about our case and the Constitution because civics affects our health too, and civics 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 that Supreme Court decisions can be appealed.
So, I decided to do more. Along with attorney Mike Hiestand, who has helped 15,000 students, teachers and administrators with student speech issues, I started a “Tinker Tour” to promote youth voices, free speech and a free press. The goal is to bring real-life civics lessons to students through the Tinker armband story and the stories of other young people.
In the fall of 2013 we kicked off our tour on Constitution Day at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, then 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.
In the spring of 2014, we moved on to schools and events in the American west, midwest and southwest, as well as a stop in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Vancouver, Canada.
In the 2014-15 school year, the Tinker Tour continued, but without Mike Hiestand, who was sorely missed when he returned to his family and home in Washington state.
For the 2015-16 school year, the Tinker Tinker is planning another exciting year, including a special 50-year anniversary stop at Harding Middle School in Des Moines, Iowa, where I was suspended in 8th grade. Wow, how life can change!
In 1965, we made with simple armbands. Now, students are using new speech tools to make history again, which is great news for democracy!
We love hearing all the ways students are doing that, and we love generating enthusiasm for civics and the First Amendment in a real, fun way. (Check out our “theme song” performed by students just for us!)
The Tinker Tour is honored to be a special project of the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit organization with a long history of supporting youth voices.
The Tinker Tour has also been endorsed by many of the country’s leading civics education, civil rights and journalism groups. For that, we are very proud and grateful.
To keep the Tinker Tour rolling, you can make a tax-deductible donation to the Student Press Law Center here. Click on “yes” when asked if you want to dedicate your gift, then specify Tinker Tour.
Or send your contribution to:
Tinker Tour, c/o Student Press Law Center, 1608 Rhode Island Ave NW, Suite 211, Washington DC 20036.
This is an important time in history, especially for youths, who are naturally creative and hopeful, but often feel discouraged. They want to hear about other young people who have used their rights- and still are- to make a difference. On the Tinker Tour, they do!