John Tinker Describes the First Day Wearing a Black Armband to School to Protest the Vietnam War

John Tinker describes what he was thinking and feeling while wearing a black armband to school to protest the Vietnam War in 1965. He describes the reaction from other students, teachers and the principal.

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



I did walk to school. I had the armband in my pocket. I was nervous, by then it was in the news. I was nervous that somebody would just drive by and and give me a hard time.

A year earlier I had had the experience, for no reason at all, of somebody throwing a beer can full of beer at me while I was just walking down the street and that kind of went through my mind, and I knew that there was a lot of hatred really toward people who opposed the war.

That the people who felt like that were pro war that they were not necessarily all of them so polite and civilized. They were capable of doing things, violent acts.

Anyway, I walked to school with the armband in my pocket. I played in the orchestra so I went to Orchestra practice. I still didn't have the armband on. I was sort of embarrassed to put it on in front of people. I went from Orchestra practice.

When that was over, I went up to our homeroom. I still didn't want to pin it on in homeroom class. I still didn't have it on so after homeroom.

I went into the restroom and kind of struggled really with a safety pin trying to pin it on the other arm with one hand. One of the other students came in to the restroom and saw me struggling like that and he helped me pin the armband on. I thought that was nice.

Then I went to my classes. I went to three classes with the armband on and nobody said anything, and I'm pretty sure one of my teachers Mr. Werden (sp), the math teacher, saw the armband but decided not to do anything about it. That was interesting to me.

When I went to gym class the last class I had for the for the morning I didn't wear it. I was in my gym clothes then; but when I got dressed after gym, after my shower I got dressed and I put it on instead of on a dark coat like I have on right now I put it on a white shirt that I had on under it and it stood out very very well then.

I went to lunch and I sat with my usual friends at lunch at my usual table. A couple of kids came over and started harassing me, calling me a commie and a coward and things like that. A football player, Steve Klein (sp), came over to our table and he addressed the kids that were harassing me.

He said look you have your opinions about the war. John has his opinion about the war, and John has a right to his opinion so leave him alone.That was a very nice thing to have happen thank you Steve.

I didn't know him personally really at the time, but I've come to know him since and we're friends now, Facebook friends. Anyway, it was quite an experience.

A clerk from the office saw me in the lunchroom with the armband on and she reported that to the office. My first period in the afternoon there was a phone call Mr. Lorry's (sp) class, English class. Mr. Lorry answered the phone and he looked back at me and he said John Tinker you are to report to the office. Everybody knew what that was about. I was wearing the armband. I went to the office and the boys advisor was gone for the day so I talked directly with the principal, Don Wetter (sp). We sat there in his office. He patronized me some. paternalistic; but in a kind of a good sense. He was fatherly with me. He thought that maybe I didn't understand the importance of supporting the government in a time of war. He thought perhaps, I'd been listening to some bad advice from people. I tried to convince him how wrong the war was and how right it was for me to wear the armband. He really treated me with a certain degree of respect, which I appreciated very much.

At the end of I think it was maybe 45 minutes a really nice long talk, he said well I'm going to ask you to take off the armband and if you take it off you can go back to class and it will be just like nothing happened.

He said, but I don't think you're gonna take it off are you?

I said no, I'm not.

He said well I'm gonna have to send you home. I can't have you in school with the armband on, but I'm not going to open a file on it. I'm not going to formally suspend you, but you can't be in school with the armband.

I called my dad and my dad came and picked me up.

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