by Carolyn Jacobson
Those of us who live in Forest Hills can boast that some very important people live here. But how many of us are aware that we have someone in our midst who made national news when she was only 13, and who continues to impact our lives, as well as those of our children and grandchildren?
That very unassuming person is Mary Beth Tinker, one of the Tinkers involved in the 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines (393 U.S. 503, 1969). The high court’s decision extended First Amendment rights to schoolchildren.In 1965, Mary Beth was a 13-year-old junior high school student. She and a group of students decided to wear black armbands to school to protest the war in Vietnam. The school board got wind of the protest and passed a preemptive ban. When Mary Beth arrived at school on December 16th of that year, she was asked to remove the armband. She took it off but was sent home anyway.
Four other students, including her brother John Tinker, refused to take off their armbands. They were suspended and could not return to school until they agreed to remove them. They all returned to school after the Christmas break without armbands, but in protest, wore black clothing for the remainder of the school year.
The 1965 incident began a four-year court battle (the students were represented by the ACLU) that culminated in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the Court ruled 7-2 that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
The Court said that the First Amendment applied to public schools, and school officials could not censor student speech unless it disrupted the educational process. Because wearing a black armband was not disruptive, the Court held that the First Amendment protected the right of students to wear one. Read the opinion.
Mary Beth moved to Van Ness East four years ago, but has been coming here frequently for many years – working with the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project (named after Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and William J. Brennan, Jr.) at AU Law School. The project, which was established in 1999, mobilizes talented second- and third-year law students, as well as LLM students, to teach courses on constitutional law and juvenile justice in public high schools in the District of Columbia and Maryland. There are similar licensed programs at law schools throughout the country.Each spring, the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project of American University Washington College of Law hosts an end-of-year celebration for the high school students who study constitutional law in Marshall-Brennan classes during the past academic year. As part of the celebration, the program presents an annual Mary Beth Tinker Award. The award is presented “for unswerving devotion to the rule of law and the rights of American students.”
Mary Beth won the first award, which states: “You displayed remarkable character and courage in standing up to school officials in order to carry out a peaceful protest against the Vietnam war and Cambodian bombing by wearing a black armband to school. That act and the landmark ruling it yielded in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District would be more than enough to merit the naming of this award in your honor. But you have also continued to speak out for the rights of students and against injustice throughout your life, and you have been a role model to the young people of this country that they can and should make a difference.”
How Mary Beth learned to stand up for her rights
Mary Beth’s dad was a minister, who she describes as having a strong commitment to social justice. Both her parents taught by example that “one’s religious views need to be put into action.” She remembers that when she was five years old, blacks were not allowed to swim at the local swimming pool in Atlantic, Iowa. Her father went with some colleagues to city hall to demand that the policy be reversed. Soon thereafter, the Methodist Bishop instructed Rev. Tinker to move to Des Moines, where they continued to stand up for their values.
The Tinkers closely watched the civil rights protests and violence of the era, such as the 1963 bombing in Birmingham, the 1964 murders in Philadelphia, Miss., and Freedom Summer. Her family told the kids about these events — even if they weren’t there in person.
In 1963, Mary Beth’s older sister wrote an essay for an NAACP essay contest on “What the Emancipation Proclamation Was – and Means to Me.” She won and then went to the 1963 March on Washington. Around the same time, her family won the NAACP “Family of the Year” award.
Tinker case’s effect on Mary Beth’s life
“No one in our family realized [at the time] the importance of this and the consequences of wearing a small black strip of cloth to school one day,” says Mary Beth.
It took her over a decade to realize how big the case was. While in her late 20s, she found the case in a nursing textbook on pediatrics and children’s rights. “You go and live your life and do the things you believe. You don’t think about what’s popular because that can change. The ripple effect can be enormous.”
“[The case] has defined my life in so many ways,” she says. “I wanted to duck and refer people to the older teenagers [who also wore armbands that day]. It was the older kids who had planned everything.”But she and her little flip hairdo ended up being a media magnet. At a certain point she asked herself, “OK, now what do I do with this? Maybe sharing my story with young people is one of the best things I can do to promote their health, to encourage them to speak up for themselves. [There is a] need to speak up about things that are unfair, especially about things that affect children and teenagers. So, that’s what I have done.”
Mary Beth sees a direct connection between protecting students rights to speak out and protecting their health. She works as a pediatric nurse at Prince George’s Hospital Center.
She often travels to give speeches to local affiliates of the ACLU, education programs of the American Bar Association and other civic groups, law school and high schools. This summer she is giving weekly keynote addresses to 6th and 7th graders visiting DC as part of the Jr. National Young Leaders Conference.
“I tell people about what kids are doing,” says Mary Beth. “I talk about the 10-year-olds who have petitions in their schools against certain practices of the circus; kids taking action against Styrofoam trays, kids marching at the White House to protest what was going on with Trayvon Martin.”
“It has enriched my life so much… to be immersed in this issue of children’s rights… because I have met and found out about children all over the U.S. and all over the world who are taking action and speaking up about a better way of doing things. I remind these kids that they are part of a much larger effort.”
Beyond the Tinker decision
Although the Tinker Decision was a national precedent-setting victory and she cites other positive related court decisions, her on-going concern is that “the rights of students are going backwards.” She regrets that there are “several cases since then allowing school-sponsored events to be more easily censored.” She is concerned about the chilling effect of “No Child Left Behind,” noting that a principal recently told her “we can’t teach kids about their rights and things like that. We’ve got to get these kids to pass the standardized tests.”
“Are you aware that social studies is not tested, just reading and math?” she asked. “So social studies is the step-child because of NCLB. In many cases, 9th and 10th grade social studies no longer required.”
She talked at length about the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project and her delight that a number of other law schools in recent years have created similar projects. Even so she is disturbed by “the alarming data that U.S. students don’t know the Constitution and the First Amendment, and that the general public doesn’t know them either.”
Mary Beth shares a number of ideas to address this problem:
1. A civics game that is part of iCivics, a project spearheaded by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, would be a good activity for families and schools. The game includes a case modeled after the Tinker case. It’s free and can be downloaded at icivics.org.
2. Constitution Day, established in 2004, is celebrated on September 17th of each year to commemorate the day in 1787 when the Constitution was ratified. The law requires that all public and private schools and universities that receive federal funding teach the Constitution on this day, but few observe it. She encourages any parent or community member to check with their local school and support teaching efforts.
3. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) DC Chapter is located in our neighborhood, at 4301 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 434, Phone: 202-457-0800 / Fax: 202-457-0805. This is a great place to volunteer, with many excellent opportunities.
4. Mary Beth can come and speak to your group or class. Contact her at email@example.com.
Mary Beth is also seeking assistance in creating a web site that provides information about her case and resources for young people and teachers. Please get in touch her if you’d like to help.