Mary Beth Tinker Describes Influence of Parents in Taking Civic Action

Mary Beth Tinker describes the influence of her parents and the work of national civil rights activists in her decision to wear a black armband to school in 1965 to protest the Vietnam War.

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

We knew that our father had a very strong belief that you should follow your conscience. He had always told us that if you don't follow your conscience we could have the Nazis, and some of his friends had been killed in World War II.

I remember him taking us to the graveyard to their graves and teaching us that lesson that you need to stand up for your conscience. They were also examples for how to do that.

Our father had been put out of Atlantic, Iowa, a small church there, for complaining about the swimming pool. The public swimming pool that would not allow black families to swim there in 1957.

They had also gone to Mississippi in 1964. Our parents believe that you should put your faith into action.

Our actions with the armband really grew out of our our religious faith in many ways, because that's how they had raised us. Don't wait for heaven. Get started right here on Earth, being brotherly and understanding and making a more peaceful world.

They had gone to Mississippi when they heard about Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman the three civil rights workers being murdered there in 1964.

They came home on may 12th birthday and told us kids how the house they were staying and had been shot at just because the lady that lived there was helping with the Voting Rights Campaign for African Americans.

They were examples. They had stood up for what they believed in. That really had a huge effect on our lives. They were examples.

It was a powerful combination of strong emotions that we felt about the war combined with having examples of people who do something about those emotions.

We had other examples as well, the children in Birmingham we saw in the news in 1963.

The first time black armbands had been worn in Des Moines was for the four little girls at the 16th Street 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham when the four girls had been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963.

People in Des Moines were black armbands, and we attended a service here in Des Moines for the girls and wore black armbands.

The idea of wearing the black armbands. The idea of grief that is there in life, but you can do something about it. You can take action. Our parents really were examples for that.