50 year Anniversary of Tinker vs Des Moines

     On February 27, 2019 Mary Beth Tinker and John Tinker made their final official stop on their anniversary tour to celebrate their stand for civil rights. A portion of the visitors were required to stand due to a larger turn-out. During the conference, the key speakers along with the audience partook in conversations about the rights within the first amendment and how to utilize them.

     Mary Beth opened the meeting by informing the audience about the history of the black armbands: “In 1963, people in Iowa had already worn armbands at a memorial service to mourn four little girls who were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham, Alabama.” American novelist and activist, James Baldwin, requested that people attend the service to commemorate the young children whom were murdered by a bomb planted in their church by the Ku Klux Klan due to their up-spoken words regarding democracy. Following the tragedy, people across the country wore the black armbands in remembrance. John goes on to explain how the armbands made another debut in the largest counteractive move against the Vietnam war. A couple charter buses were set to harbor individuals including John Tinker and his mother. “It was just people who cared about peace,” John explained, “On our way back from DC there was a discussion on the bus: What we might do to continue to work against the war.” The topic of the black armbands arose yet again. “We had prior experience wearing black armbands with the Civil Rights Movement, and now we were going to wear them with the Antiwar movement.”

      John and Mary Beth also gave time to acknowledge their dad whom was a strong figure in their lives. Mary Beth shares, “Our father was a… minister and our mother was also very much involved with the church and they instilled in us those values of love and brotherhood and understanding that run through all religions.” The Tinker family always grew up with strong believes in equality. This was demonstrated when they’re father complained about people of color being restricted from using the local swimming pool. As a result, the family was forced to move, losing the house and the fathers job. He then lost his job again when inviting black friends to the church, where he was then offered a job by the American French Service Committee. Being newly employed as Secretary for Peace Education allowed for a justice filled environment.

     In 1965, as the Vietnam War was underway, Mary Beth and John were exposed to the horrors of the violence that the war entailed. Shortly after, a small piece movement was created in Des Moines. The children grew up with strong illustration of love, hope and forgiveness, but in with these new problems arising, they experienced the opposite. “…We saw a gap between what was being taught and what was really happening, and we decided to speak up about that,” explains Mary Beth. They took the idea of the black armbands to their youth group where the majority of participants agreed that it was a good idea.

     As one of the Roosevelt students wrote about the symbolism of peace that was to be displayed, the head of every Des Moines school system met and collectively decided to ban the wearing of the antiwar strips of cloth. Disregarding the new rule, the armbands were worn, causing student suspensions. Mary Beth and John did not want to interfere with any possible truancy while they sued the school for breaching their first ammendent rights. “When we weren’t allowed to wear black armbands what did we do? We wore black clothes to school… They wont tell us to take our clothes off!” discloses Mary Beth.

     Entrees from Drake students explaining what free speech meant to them were then read. Things like “Holding the powerful accountable to all” and “using my voice as a megaphone” were constant points made throughout the written cards. The leaders of the conference wanted the experience to be interactive. “…Tell us what’s important to you and ask any questions that you feel like asking” encourages John, “If you have a statement, please make a statement.”

     The first topic that was brought up was fake news. An audience participant expresses “I fear that policies around climate change and the discussion is it seems to be way off track and using it inappropriately.” The individual said how false statements about climate change is a growing problem that the generation must suffer the consequences of. After a quick response by John on the difference between speech and money, another audience member chimes in, saying “I do think that we should be weary of extending unprotected speech to lies.” She believes in the importance of understanding a topic in order to call out those who spread false information. Overall, the room agreed that media literacy was an important aspect of news and journalism.

     Free speech zones were talked about in a way that noted the desire to be able to speak freely whenever, and not just in certain areas. “You have to start thinking about where… do my rights begin and where do my rights end.” communicates Bakari Caldwell, Vice President of Student Life and Drake University. An important part of the conversation dealt with opposing point of views. “I think that’s where we need to learn that others opinions, even though they aren’t our own, aren’t going to just stop.” discloses one of the Student Speakers. It was mentioned that listening to and understanding the reasoning behind other individuals beliefs was as important as voicing your own.

     The session also conversed about racism that was being dealt with at Drake University. “There [were] hateful notes- racist, horrific notes, slid under the doors of first year students and as a first year student and first year student of color, i feared for my life.” shares one of the student speakers. The hateful notes were both self inflicted and written from one person to another. Whilst having a meeting to decide what actions were to be carried out, a white supremacist group sent robocalls, telling African Americans to go back to Africa. These calls occured in the same room that the conference took place. “For a while, we were kind of in disarray of like ‘what the hell is going on?’… We didn’t know if they were outside” clarifies a victim. They tried to remain calm due to a lack of information. In response to the racist acts, they painted a street black. “Black to me means unity… Black is every single color in the rainbow mixed together.” the victim goes on the explain.

Overall, the meeting allowed for individuals to voice their thoughts in a safe environment. Mary Beth states “we have so many memories of being here in Iowa and our upbringing that lead us to speak up and stand up for what we believe in and for a better way, a better world.”


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