Mary Beth Tinker describes herself as shy.
She says she was a shy, ordinary child who grew up in the 1960s.
But she made international news as a student when she began wearing a black armband to school and was involved in the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District Supreme Court case.
“My parents believed in putting Christian ideals into action,” Tinker said Sunday in a phone interview with The Eagle.
More than four decades later, Tinker is still putting those ideals into action. She is on a “Tinker Tour,” in which she encourages students to speak up for their rights. She will be speaking with Maize High School students and the public in the Maize High School auditorium on April 11. She will also speak to students at Maize on April 14. The later event is not open to the public.
What she will be telling students is a little of her own history – about how she grew up in the ’60s.
Her father was a Methodist minister.
“When we would sing songs in church, such as ‘Jesus loves me,’ and there was a swimming pool down the street that wouldn’t let certain children swim there, my dad went to complain. He was put out of the church. I was raised to put values into action and take a stand if you believe something,” Tinker said.
The black armband was in protest to the Vietnam War.
“We had no idea it would become such a big deal,” she said.
She was 13 in the fall of 1965 when she, her older brother John and a family friend, 16-year-old Christopher Eckhardt, decided to wear black armbands to school. By then, thousands of U.S. soldiers had been killed in the Vietnam War. U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy had proposed a Christmas truce. There had been a rally that November in Washington, D.C., that members of the Eckhardt and Tinker families attended.
On the way back from the rally, the idea for the black armbands first surfaced, Tinker said.
The plan was to wear the armbands through the holiday season.
The Des Moines principal learned of the armband protest and quickly created a policy in which students would be asked to remove the bands; if they refused, they would be suspended.
The Tinker siblings and Eckhardt were suspended.
Their parents sued the school system for violating the students’ right of expression.
In 1969, the Supreme Court handed down its decision affirming the students’ First Amendment rights.
Nearly half a century later, Tinker is still encouraging students to exercise their rights.
“I want them to know their rights, especially their First Amendment right – then to use them in ways that are respectful, to make the world a better place,” she said. “We don’t need more hate, more hurt and bad feelings. We need understanding and love. I am encouraging students to make the world better. Maybe it is with the environment, speaking out against bullying or having healthier lunches and foods. Some students want to have active student newspapers and write about issues they care about.”
Maize High School journalism instructor Dan Loving said he first learned last summer that Tinker was doing a tour. He applied for Maize to be one of the stops. He and some of his students had heard her speak at a national journalism conference.
“I threw our name in there on a whim,” Loving said. “I thought it would be a great opportunity for the kids to speak to somebody first hand that they had read about in our history books and who had an impact on student free speech.”
Lauren Debes, a senior at Maize High, said she had a chance to speak with Tinker at the conference.
“She told me how much she values journalism,” Debes said. “She is very inspirational and very personable.”
Tinker said Sunday that she was looking forward to speaking with Kansas students.
“When young people use their rights and are a voice in society, the world is good for them. It is good for the whole of society,” Tinker said. “Without our young voices, society is cheated. We don’t get the benefit of young people’s creativity, energy, new ideas. It is better for everyone when kids are able to use their rights and speak up to make a difference.”