John Tinker Describes the Inspiration to Protest the Vietnam War

John Tinker describes the events and inspiration that led to the decision in 1965 by a group of students in Des Moines, Iowa, to wear black armbands 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.



I had gone to Washington DC to the first, large national protest against the war in Vietnam. There were two busloads, charter buses from Iowa, mostly college students from Grinnell and Ames and Iowa City, but also just ordinary citizens.

My mother was going and Chris Eckhardt’s mother also went on that bus ride. I asked if I could go too, and I got permission.

I went to Washington DC to participate in that large demonstration; and on the way back from that demonstration there was a discussion on the bus about what we might do to continue to express our concern about the Vietnam War and what was going on there.

One of the men on the bus, his name was Herbert Hoover. He was a Quaker from Des Moines. He had heard that people were going to wear armbands to protest the war to continue to protest.

Our bus decided that that was a good idea and at the next rest stop where the two buses got together. We passed that idea on to the other bus, and everybody pretty much thought it was a good idea.

On the bus trip there were four members of what was called the Liberal Religious Youth it was the Unitarian Youth Group and there were four of us that belonged to that youth group. We took that idea to the youth group and basically the whole youth group thought it was a good idea so we had all planned to wear armbands.

One of our members, Ross Peterson, wrote an article for the Roosevelt newspaper, the school newspaper, explaining what we were going to do.

When the faculty adviser saw his story, it was taken to the principal and the principal got a hold of the other principals in Des Moines; and they had a meeting and they decided not to permit the wearing of armbands.

The first day, I'm somewhat embarrassed, I was delivering newspapers. I delivered the Des Moines Register early in the morning. At that point, we knew that the armbands were going to be a problem. I had taken non-violence training as part of the Civil Rights Movement when I was just a young kid and actually earlier that summer I had participated in some also.

It had been stressed the importance of being of cohesion of the group, being prepared for what you were expecting to encounter. I thought well we really hadn't had a meeting of the people planning to wear the armbands since we found out that they had been prohibited. I thought we should call it off a day until we had a chance to talk together.

Well when I got home, Mary Beth had already gone to school. I got a hold of the other people on the telephone and I called Chris Eckhardt and Chris said I don't care I'm gonna wear it anyway and he went off to school but several of the others agreed to wait.

When Mary Beth and Chris had then were kicked out of school that first day we students met in the afternoon at Chris Eckhardt’s house and we tried to call the president of the Des Moines school board, I'm sorry the superintendent, the president of the school board that's correct.

He said that he didn't want to talk to us that we should wait until the school board meeting in January. One of the reasons we had announced that we would be wearing the armbands was, two reasons; one to mourn the deaths on both sides of the conflict, and the other reason was to support Robert Kennedy's call for a Christmas truce.

By putting us off until after Christmas we were gonna miss that purpose and so the rest of us then decided that we would go ahead and wear the armband. We got suspended, the rest of us got suspended the next day. That's why it happened and how it happened.

© 2019 Iowa PBS


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