Mary Beth Tinker Describes Her Experiences Participating in a Student Protest in 1965

Mary Beth Tinker describes the inspiration that led to her decision to participate in a student protest of the Vietnam War in 1965, along with recounting the events and experiences of the time.

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

I always walked to school to Warren Harding Junior High School where I was in eighth grade and for me it was all about the emotions, the feelings about the war being so sad watching the news.

Every night Walter Cronkite would give the body count. We would see these horrific stories of children running from their burning huts and the world looked like was on fire. The soldiers in their body bags and they would give this body count and it's just horrible. I just felt awful.

Really it's a story of journalism also because without the journalists that were there and reporting on all of us we wouldn't have known about it.

I didn't know that there was a plan to delay wearing armbands. I wasn't even sure if I should wear the armband because I was a very shy girl and I was the youngest I think of the group. Well that's not really true my little sister was in fifth grade, Hope; and my brother Paul was in second grade.

They wore black armbands to their schools the same day that I did. To Cattell Elementary School and Madison Elementary School. We were there three years ago to celebrate that 50th anniversary of all of us wearing our armbands.

But for us, the younger kids, especially, it was all about the emotions I think and how we felt about the sadness of just watching the war on on the news.

It's more vague how I felt when I was in school I remember going there with my friend Connie, my best friend who I’d always walked there with; and her, you know, saying something about how I shouldn't do this and I might get in trouble and I was getting more and more nervous.

I remember a couple of the classes I went to like sewing class and you know just being at lunchtime with the boys table next to our girls table and the boys teasing me about the armband and then going off to Mr. Moberly's (sp) class which was my math class and that was my favorite teacher Mr. Moberly.

The day before then, he had spent most of the period talking about the black armbands because it had come out in the Des Moines Register that there your rule against black armbands. He had spent most of the class period talking about the black armbands the day before so I had a feeling when I got there I was gonna be in trouble so I was really nervous coming up the hall of Harding, where I was yesterday speaking with students 50 some years later.

When I came up the hall I was just really nervous and Mr. Moberly gave me a pink pass, and I knew what that meant. I went down to the office and I was so nervous and scared and the Vice Principal Mr. Willetsen (sp) said now Mary Beth that armband is against the rules. Take off your armband. I looked around the office and I looked at him. I took off the armband and I put it on the desk. I was kind of relieved. I thought well this is over. I stood up for my rights and everything stood up about the war.

Then I went back to math class and then someone came to get me at class. Mrs. Tarman, the girl's adviser, called me back to the office and that's when she told me I was gonna be suspended. She gave me a suspension notice and then I walked home.

Yeah, I took the notice home and I wasn't sure what was going to happen. I knew that I might be suspended, but you see we had experienced watching the Birmingham kids on the news and others from the Civil Rights Movement.

We had examples in our life of people who really sacrifice and the Birmingham kids, four of them were killed for speaking up against racial segregation. I felt like getting suspended was really not a very bad thing to happen, compared to that.