John Tinker Describes Parent Reaction to His Plan to Protest the Vietnam War

John Tinker describes his parents’ initial reaction to his decision to wear an armband to protest the Vietnam War in 1965.

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.



Well by the time you know she [Mary Beth] got home, I got home from school that day. We did find out that she and Chris had both been suspended.

We did have a meeting at Chris's house.

Basically when we called the president of the school board and he said that he didn't want to talk to us, that kind of made up my mind for me, right then.

I felt that it was an important issue. I felt that we were right that we should have the right to wear the armband because people wore political buttons, they wore crosses and crucifix and other symbols of what they thought. It didn't seem right to me. I determined then that I would wear the armband.

Our parents were kind of mixed. I guess our mother was very strongly supported what we were doing. Our father had a view of authority which was that authority may not make the decision that you want them to make but that you still had a responsibility to obey authority.

When I left the house that morning he called to me just as I was walking out the door and he said you know John I'm not so sure you should do that. I'm not so sure you should wear that armband; and I said well why not, and he said well the school authorities they have a job to do and they've made a decision. I'm not so sure you should violate their decision.

I said well dad it's just a black piece of cloth and people are dying every day in Vietnam, and he said well then for you it's a matter of conscience. And I said, well I guess it is; and he said well then I support what you're doing.

Our Father, both of our parents, had lived through World War II and they had seen in Germany what happens when a whole nation fails to obey their conscience. Our father was a Methodist minister and he had been involved in the Civil Rights Movement. He had paid some prices for that too in his career as a Methodist minister.

He really respected the human conscience. That's really what he was supporting. Even though he believed in authority he believed more, I think, in the need to be true to our conscience.

© 2019 Iowa PBS


What is your Iowa pathway? Start your investigation by selecting a topic from the list above.

Media Artifacts

Navigation Tip:
Before digging in, check out how the page is organized. What are the main navigation buttons? What stays the same on every page?