Mary Beth Tinker Describes Her Work Raising Awareness of First Amendment Rights

Mary Beth Tinker describes how she came to the decision to begin public speaking to help raise awareness of First Amendment rights for young people.

Mary Beth Tinker was a 13-year-old junior high school student in December 1965 when she, her brother John, 15, and their friend Christopher Eckhardt, 16, wore black armbands to school to protest the war in Vietnam. That decision led the students and their families to embark on a four-year court battle that culminated in the landmark 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision for student free speech: Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.
 
This interview was recorded on February 21, 2019 at Iowa PBS studios in Johnston, Iowa.

 


Transcript

For a long time, I was afraid to speak about the case because I was so shy. I hated to go in public. I hated to get up in front of people. I certainly wouldn't be someone who would want to go in front of a camera.

Working as a nurse, I slowly started to see that kids really need some encouragement to speak up for themselves. I thought, what is in my background that I can tell them about to help encourage them. I realized this is right in my life experience, and I can share this experience and maybe really encourage kids.

Then as I started speaking with kids more and more, I realized it is a powerful story especially connected also to the civil rights movement.

Which this story is so connected to the struggles for equality of our country, and how young people have always been part of that.

Young people have always been an important part of making things better in our country. Taking us closer to our ideals of democracy and equality and freedom and justice for all.

That's when I pushed myself, and I started speaking up more and more.

One time, I had just come off the stage in a big auditorium with middle school kids; and I sat down in my seat and a little girl behind me, I think her name was Joni.

She said, Miss Tinker you said that you were very shy and now you're more confident and could you help me be more confident because I'm really shy too.

It was so touching to me and so encouraging. That's when I decided I should keep speaking with kids and encouraging them because they need all of us to encourage them these days.

It's not an easy time for young people today. There's so much grief that they have, and trauma that some are experiencing. I think kids need all of us to encourage them.