Mary Beth Tinker of Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines talks about students’ civil rights

By Will Wright | Assistant News Editor

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Mary Beth Tinker, from the Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines, talked with students in the Hilary J. Boone Center Thursday about her story with student rights and the power of youth.

Tinker, at the age of 13, wore a black armband to school in protest of the Vietnam War.

The war was picking up, and a Christmas Truce, a three-day cease-fire between Vietnam and U.S. fighters, was being discussed in Washington, D.C.

The principal and teachers at Tinker’s junior high school warned students not to wear black armbands in support of the Christmas Truce, but tired of seeing the war on television every night, Tinker said, “I am going to stand up for something.”

She, her brother and a friend wore the armbands and were suspended from school.

Four years later the U.S. Supreme Court was reviewing what would be a landmark case for student rights.

“Of course I thought we were going to lose,” Tinker said to students at the Boone Center. But the court ruled in her favor, saying students had the right to free speech as long as it did not disrupt class.

Tinker v. Des Moines is considered by many to be a groundbreaking civil liberty and student rights case.

“Young people need to stand up for your rights,” Tinker said. “Youth have been critical in making our country better and moving our democracy forward.”

Tinker told stories that showed the power of youth, like Benjamin Franklin, who grew up a homeless teenager in Boston and Philadelphia, and young people who protested in Alabama and Mississippi for race equality.

Tinker’s parents’ story with civil liberties inspired her to wear the black armband on that December day in 1965; a day that changed her life and the life of her country.

Tinker’s parents participated in the 1964 Freedom Summer, a project to register black voters in Mississippi.

While in Mississippi, her parents took refuge in the house of black woman who told them they should sleep in the back room so they would be safe “when the shooting started.”

Sure enough, her parents heard gunshots in the middle of the night. They ran out to see a pickup truck shooting at the dog of the house they were staying in.

Alarmed, they told the woman, “Quick, call the sheriff!”

“That is the sheriff,” the woman replied.

Since the court ruling, Tinker has spent some of her time as a nurse and traveling the country educating young people about their rights and their obligation to speak out.

Tinker has met with students all over the country. She met with students lobbying at the United Nations for children’s rights who said, “You say we are the future, but we are also the present.”

Young people have a fresh perspective on life that allows them to see inconsistencies and problems in the way people live that adults may look over, Tinker said.

Mike Hiestand, who works with the Student Press Law Center and travels with Tinker, agreed that young people can make a big impact on society.

“Kids have a powerful voice,” Hiestand said. “We need to hear that voice.”

Tinker and Hiestand allowed students to ask them questions, talk about how they, as students, are speaking out and if they think the current generation is more apathetic than the Vietnam War generation.

“I don’t think that people are more apathetic,” political science senior Joshua Hoke said. “When you tune in and start hearing (activism), it’s there.”

Hiestand said during his travels with Tinker that issues like high tuition and an overwhelming workload stood out as important topics for students and young people.

“There just isn’t a lot of joy in schools anymore. It’s troubling,” he said. “Some of the schools I’m in feel more like a prison than a school.”

Tinker agreed, saying that the amount of work and small amount of free time is hushing the activist voice in young people and adults.

She reminded students that though voicing their opinion is important, it’s not easy and it can be frightening. Bomb threats and hate mail are just some of the reactions her family received because of the court case.

“Sometimes when you speak up it may not always be so popular,” Tinker said. “But things change.”