Forty-eight years after sporting a black armband to school to protest the Vietnam War, Mary Beth Tinker is traveling the country talking to school children about her landmark Supreme Court case as well as the Constitution.
In 1965, Tinker was suspended after wearing a black armband to her eighth-grade classroom to protest a war was costing thousands of American lives. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of her and other students, and is still cited often in First Amendment cases.
So far, the Tinker Tour
has gone to schools in 18 states.
"Right now, we're in a really critical time because there's a combination of civics education being at a real low because of No Child Left Behind; there's a huge emphasis on math, science and those subjects, but civics and government has kind of been left in the back seat here," Tinker said. "A lot of people in our country don't understand even the basic workings of democracy."
According to a survey by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center,
only 38 percent of American adults surveyed could name all three branches of the US government. Another 33 percent couldn't name any of them correctly.
Tinker grew up in a Methodist family that was actively involved in community issues. Her minister father was kicked out of their Texas church when he advocated for the swimming pool in their neighborhood to be integrated.
"They thought that was just following their Christian values and putting them into action. They thought that’s what Jesus would have done," Tinker said of her activist parents. "They believed that church doesn't just happen on Sunday morning."
Tinker described herself as a shy child who excelled in math and didn’t really participate in activism like her parents – she wasn’t initially on board with wearing the black band with her older brother and his friend.
"All I knew was I was really sad about war and I would watch the war on TV with my little sister, Hope, and it looked like the whole world was on fire," she remembered. "By 1965 there was plenty to feel sad about for us kids and the war was the next thing. I just wanted to express my feelings like kids do."
However, the school got wind of the plan and promptly enacted a no armband rule. The Tinker children went ahead with the plan. The three were suspended from school. The American Civil Liberties Union represented the families pro bono, stating that the students should have had the right to express themselves in a peaceful manner. The district and appellate court sided with the school, but when the case finally made it to the Supreme Court in 1969, the justices sided with the Tinkers.
"I had no idea how important the ruling was going to be," Tinker said of the landmark case. “The First Amendment is a general American cause and some people confuse when you use it. They think that you're being unpatriotic. That happened when we wore our armbands in 1965. Some people mistakenly thought that we were being unpatriotic and so they sent us death threats. They threw red paint at our house. They called us communists."
While the young people of the '60s and '70s have become known as a generation of protesters, Tinker believes that yearning for change did not die with them.
"A lot of students now are vocal and are speaking up and standing up as much as in my generation. It’s in different ways. They might not be marching… but students are active today in so many areas," she said.
Around the country high school students have launched Facebook groups, planned rallies and formed petitions for various causes from their New York City schools being shut down to a Mississippi teen petitioning to have a flame retardant ingredient removed from Gatorade.
In Wilton, Conn., students who wrote play "Voices in Conflict" using the voices of real Iraq War veterans in 2007 were banned from performing. When word got out, prominent theaters in New York City and Connecticut asked it to be performed there instead.
"There's a perception in every generation that, 'Oh, these kids today, they're just not doing anything, they're just apathetic.' And really if you look at adults, there's plenty of apathy among adults as well," Tinker said. "Apathy is an issue in our whole culture, but I don't think students are any more apathetic than adults are and so that’s why we’re here on our Tinker Tour. We just want to fan the flames."
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