Fifty years ago this week, students in the Des Moines school district were suspended for wearing black armbands to silently protest the Vietnam War. They sued the district and lost, but eventually a Supreme Court decision ruled in their favor in a case considered a landmark for first amendment rights. This week those students are visiting Des Moines schools to share their history-making experience with a new generation.
During a visit to a Des Moines elementary school, Mary Beth Tinker and her siblings Paul and Hope, tell students what it was like for their family to learn about the Vietnam War in 1965.
"We were watching this on the news and we saw it and we were getting so sad about all of this and we didn’t know what to do,” says Mary Beth Tinker. "But some people had an idea right here in Des Moines. And they said, what if we just wear black armbands to school and that would be our way of saying that we’re sad."
Four Tinker siblings wore a black armband to school, despite warnings from school officials that it was forbidden. The two youngest, Paul and Hope, were in elementary school and faced no punishment, but junior high student Mary Beth and her high school brother John were suspended for the remainder of the year.
This action got the attention American Civil Liberties Union. They represented the Tinkers in a lawsuit against the Des Moines Independent Community School District. Dan Johnston was a young lawyer for the ACLU. During a forum this week at Roosevelt High School, Johnston says he took the case because he was interested in the rights of minority voices.
"The students who wore armbands were a definite minority in their schools who were being oppressed by what was essentially a totalitarian school system,” says Johnston. "There was a doctrine called 'In Loco Parentis' which they took to mean that at the school, the school authorities have all the power and authority over the students that parents had.”
They lost in court, but in 1969 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Tinkers. Mary Beth Tinker says this case ensures a student’s first amendment rights don’t stop when they enter a school. "But you cannot substantially disrupt school, and you can not infringe on the rights of others,” says Tinker.
In the library of Roosevelt High School, Tinker asks the nearly one hundred students gathered to talk about issues affecting them. "Do you think that adults have things to learn from kids?"
One female student talks about her reservation for feminist movements that exclude minority women. Sophomore Sophia Rodriguez offers a possible solution. "There is like intersectional feminism which is what I am,” says Rodriguez.
Rodriguez wants to start a feminist club at Roosevelt next semester, in part to advocate for a transgender bathroom and to raise awareness of sexual identity through buttons.
"Ideas that we were thinking like protect your sisters not just your cis, like as in cisgender," says Rodriguez. "So if I’m walking with a couple badges on my backpack, someone behind me can look and read them and be like, "wow those are some really good ideas," or "oh I never really thought of that before.""
Mary Beth Tinker says she tours schools across the country to talk about civil rights and her family’s story from the 1960s to encourage this kind activism from today’s youth.
"Teachers and administrators want children to learn that they have their rights, want them to hear this story of children who are speaking up with their voices to take democracy forward and to take our world forward, and it’s a real lesson in how things can change. But things don’t just change. It takes people to make that happen, and so that’s why we want to give kids that message that when you stand up and speak up about some issue that affects your life and join with others to do that, it’s a great way of life. And it’s so worth it.”
Tinker will continue sharing her story through Friday in Des Moines schools, including the ones where she and her brother were suspended 50 years ago this week for wearing armbands as a form of silent protest. She plans to continue the tour in schools across the country next year.