OTTUMWA — Mary Beth Tinker told Evans Middle School students they don’t have to be the bravest or most outgoing person to make a difference. You don’t even have to be an adult. She’s living proof of that.
Tinker was one of the Des Moines students involved in the landmark 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District that affirmed that a student’s First Amendment right to free speech does not end when they enter a school.
Social studies teacher Cooper Smith said he’s constantly telling his seventh-grade students that they have the ability to make a difference. After reviewing some reading on the Tinker case, he decided to see if his students could have a conversation with her.
That conversation happened Friday over Zoom.
“I wanted the students to realize they could make a difference,” Smith said. “To have them talk to an outsider who had been through it, it would be perfect.”
Tinker, who remains active in youth rights, was on board for the discussion.
“She was very excited to come in and meet virtually with the students,” Smith said, even offering to do it at no cost to help public schools during pandemic times.
“It was by far the easiest guest speaker I’ve been able to get to come in,” he said.
As Tinker greeted the students, she said the case that ended in her favor is essentially a worldwide human rights issue. “Young people have been speaking up on issues that impact them all through history,” she said.
Her story goes back to when she was a young girl during the Civil Rights era. Though she grew up in Des Moines, she saw on the news what was happening to Blacks across the country. “In our time, we had the Birmingham Children’s Crusade and other groups standing up for Black rights and against injustice,” she said. “They were amazing.”
She compared the time to the Black Lives Matter movement the students have seen in their lifetime.
“I grew up in a mighty time, just like you,” Tinker said. “I was 10 years old and I saw these kids speaking out against racism.”
The adults, she said, were always talking but not necessarily acting. The kids she watched started marching and singing. Then, the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four girls around her age put Tinker into action. Black arm bands were worn and a memorial service was held to show her and other children’s sadness about the bombing that had taken young lives.
By the time Tinker was in eighth grade in 1965, the Vietnam War was ramping up, she said, with more than 1,000 American lives lost. Again, she saw adults talking but not acting.
“On the news, it was war, war war,” she said. “Yeah, the adults were talking about peace, but what were they doing?”
Again, she and a few others decided to wear black arm bands to show they were sad about the people dying in the war. “We thought we should be able to speak up about things that were impacting our lives,” she said. “We felt the adults should be doing what they said.”
However, she said, the principals and administrators didn’t like that idea — even though black arm bands had been allowed regarding other topics. She and four other students were suspended for wearing the arm bands anyway, setting up the legal challenges.
Tinker said it was an emotionally fraught issue with many people having family members in Vietnam.
Students asked what it was like for her during the process.
“Some people got really mad at us,” Tinker answered. “They said we didn’t know ‘anything’ about Vietnam. It turns out adults didn’t know anything sometimes,” including where the country is.
In fact, she said, “some adults were really bullies.” She showed the students samples of hate mail that she received and told the story of a phone call she received where the caller threatened to kill her.
“All just for speaking up for peace at Christmastime,” she said.
Others told her she was being unpatriotic. She saw it differently. “I was raised in the church with the ideas of peace, understanding and getting along. That was patriotic.
“It was just so strange,” she said. She was studying for classes and going roller skating with friends, all while being a part of the case. “I was so scared. I was the shiest kid you could ever imagine.” She also said she was the youngest student involved in the case.
Tinker credited the Iowa branch of the American Civil Liberties Union for helping the case get advanced through the court system despite losses at lower levels. “They got us to the Supreme Court more than anybody else.”
However, she didn’t think they had a shot at winning. She said she couldn’t imagine any judge saying that the principal and superintendent and others were wrong and a group of students were right.
However, she was wrong about that. In 1969 — Tinker was then a junior — on a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students. She told the Evans students Friday that “they voted in favor of YOU.”
“On Feb. 24, 1969, the court ruled 7-2 that students do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,’” according to aclu.org.
“In our system, state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students … are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State,” wrote Justice Abe Fortas.
However, Tinker said, there were limits to students’ free speech indicated in the decision. The speech can’t be substantially disruptive or impinge on the rights of others. Following cases also said that student speech can’t contain obscenity or promote illegal drugs, she said.
During the conversation, students asked what they could do to get involved today. “Think about one thing you care about that you would change if you could,” Tinker said. “It always starts with the same thing: research.” She said to dig into the topic and find out facts and figures on it, the laws surrounding the issue and who you could reach out to to make changes, she said.
That includes finding out who represents you in the statehouse and who your representatives and senators are, she added. Also, she said, it’s important to understand what the First Amendments rights are: free speech, a free press, the right to assemble and petition your government and the freedom of religion.
She showed a coloring book she’s published of different issues kids have worked on and how they’ve tackled them in different ways. “That’s the thing about kids. They can be so creative,” she said. In her case, even after she and the other students were ordered to remove their arm bands, they opted to continue dressing in black, saying the thought was the administrators couldn’t order them to remove their clothes.
Whether it’s abuse, violence, school lunch food, animals, clean air, clean water or something else, kids have the right to speak out on the issues important to them, she said. They have a right to housing, having enough to eat, nice schools, to be healthy, to not be shot at, she said.
“Even at 12, 13 years old, you have a the ability to play a role in that,” Tinker told the Ottumwa students. “You don’t have to be the bravest person. You can be shy and scared and still do something about the issue.”