Just before Christmas in 1965, a group of students in Des Moines, Iowa wore black armbands to school to mourn the dead in Vietnam. I was 13 and in eighth grade. The nightly TV news, with scenes of flaming huts, screaming children, and soldiers in body bags had gotten to me. Along with a small group of high school students, including my brother John and our friend, Chris Eckhardt, and even my little brother and sister Paul and Hope, who were in elementary school, I decided to wear an armband that Christmas. Our message was peace.
We had no idea that our small action would lead us to the Supreme Court, or that the ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District 40 years ago today would become a landmark for students’ rights. But that is how history is made.
In 1965, the whole world seemed upside-down. Our teachers taught us not to fight, but adults were trying to solve their differences through war. In history class, we learned that everyone had equal rights, but working on a school project about lynching, I learned that blacks had been terrorized for years, even after the Emancipation Proclamation. And it was still going on. Walking with my friend Charles, kids would yell, “Hey, nigger lover!” because he was black and I was white. On the news, we saw children in Selma and Birmingham attacked with dogs and firehoses just for wanting good schools. My friends and I wanted to do more, and would join protestors at the capital, picketing for racial justice and singing freedom songs. There was hope, like now.
But by Christmas that year, about a thousand American soldiers had been killed in Vietnam and President Johnson had to decide whether to escalate the war or try to negotiate peace. A lot of people thought it was patriotic to support the war, but others thought we should try peace. One of them, Senator Robert Kennedy, proposed a Christmas truce. Some students in Des Moines decided to wear black armbands to support him, and wrote an article about it in their school newspaper. The principals saw the article and ruled that any students who tried to wear black armbands to school would be suspended.
After that, we weren’t sure what to do. We’d learned about the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment in school, and we felt free speech should apply to kids, too. We also had the examples of brave people standing up against dogs and firehoses to fight racism. In the end, we decided to go ahead and wear the armbands, and some of us were suspended.
That might have been the end of the story, if not for the American Civil Liberties Union. They provided a lawyer, Dan Johnston, who helped us win our case at the Supreme Court on February 24, 1969 by a vote of 7-2. It was a victory for all students because it protects student speech at schools to this day.
In 40 years, things have changed. But the desire of students to express themselves never will. Just last year, Heather Gillman won a case in federal court after her principal banned her from wearing a rainbow belt to show support for LGBT students at her school in Florida. Using the ruling from our case, Heather and the ACLU took her school to court and won. You can see a video here:
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Censorship still happens all the time to students. But I meet so many students who keep speaking up about all kinds of things they care about: their schools, the environment, peace, voting rights, racial discrimination, immigration and LGBT rights, and so many others. In many ways, the law is on the side of students who want to express themselves, but laws are not always clear, and they are always being interpreted and re-interpreted. Also, some administrators may not know the laws, or follow them. It takes students like Heather to keep the Constitution alive by using it.
As a gay teenager, I experienced discrimination myself. I’m grateful that the precedent established by the Supreme Court 40 years ago is still protecting students, including LGBT students and their friends. And I’m glad Heather was strong, and that she and her friends and stood up for themselves and the Bill of Rights.
I was scared the day I wore that armband to school, but I knew I had to speak up. The world seemed upside-down, but my friends and I had courageous role models to show us how to stand up for what we believed. If you look around, there are many others like that, whether in your home, your school, your neighborhood, your town or even across the world. You can join them to change the world, and when you do your life will be meaningful and very interesting. It certainly has been for me!
Mary Beth Tinker is a nurse in Washington, D.C., and was the lead plaintiff in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. In her spare time she travels all over the U.S. talking with students about their First Amendment rights and the importance of speaking out. You can watch the video about Heather Gillman and listen to an audio interview with Mary Beth Tinker here.