Tinker speaks to next generation of student activists


Simren Dadwani

Tinker at the Journalism Education Association Conference in Washington D.C. on Nov. 22, 2019

In 1965, Mary Beth Tinker, her siblings, and a handful of other students decided to wear black armbands to school as a symbol of mourning for those who had died in Vietnam and to advocate for a Christmas truce.

Tinker was a shy 13-year-old, unsure about whether or not she wanted to participate in the symbolic gesture. In the end, she decided to take the leap and join the others.

“I ended up wearing a black arm band too, which was very scary because the [administrators] made a rule against our bands when they heard that we were going to do this,” she said.

Tinker added that when she was pulled out of class and told by the vice principal to take the armband off, she complied. However, she was still suspended for her role in the protest. The other students who wore armbands were likewise punished.

When the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) heard about what had happened, they offered to help. The organization worked with the students to reverse the decision that the school board and administration had made.

“We went to school board meetings, but they wouldn’t change their mind. So then the ACLU said, ‘Well, we’re going to have to go to court.’”

The case eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was decided in favor of Tinker and the other plaintiffs. In this landmark case, Justice Abe Fortas wrote in the majority opinion that students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights…at the schoolhouse gate.”

Tinker’s involvement in the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Supreme Court case spurred a lifelong passion for advocating for students’ free expression.

“It’s made it possible for me to spend my life with students and young people who are advocating for their own interests and for their own rights. It’s given me a way to encourage students, to be with students, to listen to the issues that you care about, and to learn how you are speaking up for yourselves,” said Tinker.

For this reason, despite her initial hesitation to participate, Tinker said that she does not regret her decision to don the armband.

“I think kids have a basic sense of fairness, and we thought it wasn’t fair that they had told us that we couldn’t even express ourselves. We weren’t hurting anyone, and we weren’t disrupting school. We felt very strongly about it. It’s really a combination of having strong feelings about something, and then having examples of people who do something about their feelings.”

Though students now have different platforms–such as social media–that they can use to advocate for causes they believe in, Tinker noted that there are many parallels between students today and those in the 60s and 70s.

“Young people were speaking up for racial equality and even for the environment then, and against war, for having a say in their schools, and gender equality. All of these things are still going on, so there are a lot of similarities,” said Tinker.

Tinker’s background as a nurse has helped to shape her view that young people, because of where they are in the development process, are uniquely suited to speaking out.

“[Young people] have wonderful qualities, you know creativity, and energy, and you’re more willing to take risks because of your brain chemistry and your developmental stage; you have more dopamine in your brains,” Tinker explained.

To Tinker, the fresh perspective that young people bring to the table is also beneficial.

“A lot of adults get used to doing things a certain way, and they get discouraged about the possibility of change. But that’s the power of young people. You’re courageous, you have a sense of fairness.”

Tinker strongly believes that it is important for society to encourage itsyouth to use their rights and speak up about the issues that would make life better for them.

“When your rights are suppressed, when you’re censored, not only are you cheated but the whole society is cheated,” said Tinker.

Tinker also believes that it is beneficial to the mental health of students to advocate for issues they are passionate about.

“It all really has to do with mental health. That’s part of the reason I started speaking with students in the last 10 or 15 years, too, because I was a trauma nurse and I find it’s really good for your health when you speak up and stand up about things.”

By taking action and joining up with other young people, Tinker stated that children and teens are able to meet others and feel that they’re part of a group that’s doing something to make things better.

Tinker encourages students to take action and to not be afraid to speak up for what they believe in.

“Get together with a few other people who also care about that issue, and then you can think about who might be your allies. Maybe you have some adults or teachers to be your allies, and then think about the creative things you can do to advocate for what it is you want to speak up about.”

Tinker believes that similar to the 60s and 70s, students now are growing up in a “mighty time” where many are energized to create change.

But students can lead the charge only if they are aware of and choose to exercise their rights.

“In order to really use your rights, and make them stronger, you have to keep them active. And use them. It’s like your muscles: if you don’t use them you can lose them. So when the administrators see you using your rights, that makes your rights stronger.”