Tinker remembers her 1965 protest


Mary Beth Tinker

By David W. Bulla

WASHINGTON, D.C.—She remembers it like it happened yesterday, the day Mary Beth Tinker got suspended for her sympathy for Robert F. Kennedy’s call for a Christmas truce in Vietnam. The year was 1965, and the place was Harding Junior High School in Des Moines, Iowa.

Wearing a black armband, Tinker was going into Richard Moberly’s mathematics class after lunch. Moberly told Tinker to go to the office.

“They asked me to take it off, and I did,” Tinker told attendees at the AEJMC conference at the Renaissance Hotel. “I was sent back to class, but then the boy who works in the office came back to Mr. Moberly’s class. I was going to be suspended anyway because I had worn the armband in the first place.”

Tinker, who was 13 at the time, admitted she had some second thoughts about wearing the armband.

“I was the good girl with good grades and the daughter of a Methodist minister,” she said.

But she was not alone. Her old brother John and two younger siblings also wore the armbands, as did Christopher Eckhardt. The two older Tinkers and Eckhardt were suspended by the Des Moines school district.

“I am not exactly sure how the administration first found out about it,” Mary Beth Tinker said, “but I think it was because two students were reporting on it for the student newspaper.”

Indeed, Ross Peterson at Roosevelt High School wrote the story, and his adviser gave the information to the administration. Just a few days before the scheduled protest, the school district met and established a policy to ban armbands. Thus, the protestors were not in compliance.

Mary Beth Tinker said the Iowa ACLU heard about the suspensions and told her parents that they would help them if they wanted to sue the school district.

The younger Tinkers were not suspended.

“In fact, my little brother had his on in PE, and the teacher praised him,” she said. “The teacher said Americans had a right to protest.”

Some in the public were not so happy with the youth protestors. Tinker said one woman called and said she was going to kill the 13-year-old. Moreover, the Tinkers got a post card in the mail with the word “Dead” over a hammer and sickle.

“Mom said, ‘We’re not Communists; we’re Methodists,'” Tinker said as she showed the card to the journalism educators.

After Christmas break, the Tinkers and Eckhardt did not wear the armbands anymore.

“We had a new way to protest,” Mary Beth Tinker said. “We wore all black. Today we would be called ‘Goths.'”

Dan Johnston of the Iowa ACLU argued for the plaintiffs. He took the case because the Tinkers were coming from a pacifist background, and he thought minority rights had to be protected by the law.

“Our parents had us paying attention to the civil rights struggles in the South,” Tinker said.

The case wound its way through the courts, losing at the trial level and the court of appeals. However, the U.S. Supreme Court took the case, and the justices heard arguments in November 1968. In January 1969, they ruled 7-2 in favor of the students.

Justice Abe Fortas wrote for the majority, saying that neither students nor teachers shed their constitutional rights “to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

She said a key component of the decision was the condition that the protest had to significantly disrupt the normal operation of a school.

“Thurgood Marshall asked the attorneys for the school district how a half dozen students protesting with armbands could disrupt a high school of 1,500,” she said.

Mary Beth Tinker now is a nurse in Washington, D.C., and will be undertaking a tour of the country to promote freedom of expression this coming fall semester. Her brother John, she said, bought an elementary school building in Fayette, Mo., and made it into his home. He also runs the website Schema-Root.org. Sadly, Eckhardt, who was a social worker, died in December.

About two decades ago, Mary Beth saw Moberly when both were invited by the Des Moines school district to remember the case.

“He told me he was glad we won the case,” she said. “I asked him if he would send me to the office again, and he said, ‘Yes.'”

The Scholastic Journalism Division of AEJMC sponsored Tinker’s talk and awarded her with a lifetime achievement award.

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