Mary Beth and John Tinker Describe Receiving Threats After Protesting the Vietnam War

Mary Beth and John Tinker describe their experiences dealing with negative reactions and threats based on their opposition to the Vietnam War and participation in the court case related to students’ First Amendment rights.

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.



Mary Beth: First we gave testimony in an office for the district court and then for the appeals court they just get the record, basically. Although we did attend the appeals court in St. Louis.

I was doing all the ordinary things from my age. I was going roller skating on Saturdays, studying for my classes and exams, and going to slumber parties and things like that; but then we would also go in and give these testimonials and testify for the record.

The whole thing was pretty daunting . That part was daunting; but the worst part was, first of all the war kept building up. And it got worse and worse every year it seemed because when we did this there had been about 1,000 US soldiers killed in Vietnam that Christmas of 1965.

And of course in the end there were about 58,000 US soldiers killed so every year it got worse and worse. That was very hard to deal with but also the people that were against us some of them were very threatening and someone threatened to blow up our house on Christmas Eve.

They threw red paint at our house and called us communists, and my mother would always say we're not communists, we're Methodists.

A lady called me on the phone and said is this Mary Beth Tinker, and I said yes.

She said, I'm gonna kill you and I was in eighth grade. I was just walking out the door on my way to school there after Christmas.

All of that was pretty hard to deal with although we always kept comparing it to what had happened to the Civil Rights kids and to the Birmingham. Kids who had been attacked with dogs and water hoses and four of them had even been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.

We always felt that what was happening to us was really minimal compared to what these black kids had been dealing with.

John: Mary Beth took a call directly, I think you said, where the woman offered to kill her, threatened to kill her. That didn't happen to me.

I lived in the front room of the house, and I did imagine what it would be like if somebody through some type of an explosive through the window. What would I do you know, would I pulled the mattress up over me?

It's funny because I don't remember a lot of fear at that time. We knew about the harm that people had suffered in the south over the Civil Rights Movement, and we knew about the violence in Vietnam all the time. Somehow, I think in my mind, I had kind of normalized it a little bit. I just thought it was just part of life in a sense, part of my life anyway.

© 2019 Iowa PBS


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