An unlikely hero of the Civil Rights Era is coming to Lansing on Tuesday. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that students have a constitutional right to free speech. The case of Tinker vs. Des Moines all started when a 13-year-old girl was suspended from school.
Editor's Note: Mary Beth Tinker will speak at the State Bar of Michigan in Lansing at 4 p.m. Tuesday (April 30). She will then speak in the Michigan Room at Lansing Community College starting at 5:30.
In 1965, U.S. troops were pouring into Vietnam. Each day the conflict grew, so did the backlash against it.
Mary Beth Tinker was an eighth grade student in Des Moines, Iowa. The tragedies of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and the Freedom Summer murders were still fresh in her memory. Something in those awful moments stirred her outrage. So one day, Tinker and a few other kids spoke out against the war – silently – by wearing black armbands to school.
MARY BETH TINKER:
We knew there would be risk in wearing the armbands. But we knew that we probably wouldn't pay the price that the black children in Birmingham, Alabama or the college students in Mississippi had paid in 1963 in 1964 with their lives. So, we compared our actions to the sacrifices that others were making at that time, and we felt that being suspended was a price we were certainly willing to pay.
Your school district intercepted the plan to wear the armbands and they tried to head that off.
Students at Roosevelt High School wrote an article for their school paper about our plans, and the principals heard about the plan that way. When they did, they called a hasty meeting and made a rule that no black armbands would be allowed in the public schools, and students who wore them would be asked to take them off and then suspended. Now they really didn't mean that there would be no black armbands allowed because they had already allowed black armbands in the schools a few years earlier. The purpose of those was to mourn the death of school spirit. So, it’s not that they really minded the black armbands. What they didn't like was students expressing controversial ideas or ideas that some people didn't agree with.
You were far from alone and wearing the armbands. There were about two dozen students, but only a very small handful including you and your brother were singled out to be punished. How did that come to be?
I have no idea why I was suspended, first of all, because I took off my black armband when I was asked to. I was 13 years old. I was in eighth grade, I was the only student in my school wearing a black armband and I was nervous and scared. When I got called down to the office and they told me to take off the armband, I did that. But, to me there's a lesson for students there which is that you don't have to be the most courageous person. You can be a scared, nervous person like I was and you can still make a difference.
Why do you think the fight was worth it? That would be an exhaustive and probably a very scary process to go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
It's a good way of life to stand up for what you believe in. It's not always something that you're going to win every issue that you speak up for, but it's still a good way of life.
How have you seen free speech – particularly, student free speech -- evolving in the last 50 years? I’ve talked with younger people who sometimes say, maybe you don’t always see us in person protesting but we're still active because a lot of what we do now is online.
There is so much going on with students speaking up and using their voices to promote their own interests. I spend every day learning about activities that students are doing, and I'm so excited to come to Michigan and to meet some of the students that have been so active there. I know there's been a lot going on in Detroit with unity groups and speaking up about gun violence and in Flint…Flint is leading the way with Mari Copeny and others about clean water. And it's just so heartening to see.
You mentioned gun violence just a moment ago. About a month after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School there was a coordinated student walk out across the country. Thousands of students were involved. Many school districts supported it, many others did not. Did that reveal anything to you about the strength or the legacy of your Supreme Court case?
Yes, I was excited to hear Emma Gonzalez mention the Tinker ruling when she spoke. Gun violence is such an issue that affects young people. Young people are speaking up about that and why shouldn't they? They should be able to speak up about all of the issues that affect their lives.