Time With Tinker
September 28, 2016
On Thursday, September 22, Contemporary Affairs teacher Melissa Harmeyer introduced Mary Beth Tinker to an auditorium full of high school students, most of whom were ignorant to the impact that the actions of this woman have on their daily life. The right to wear a campaign t-shirt, discuss controversial topics, or express one’s personal views were not always a given, it took Tinker, a junior in high school at the time, to fight for these rights. During the presentation, Tinker elaborated on her journey while emphasizing the importance of the 1st Amendment, specifically in regard to student voice.
Back in 1965, Tinker along with others from the Des Moines School District wore black armbands in protest of the Vietnam war. This sparked an intense controversy, and as a result the students were prohibited from wearing the armbands. Tinker rebelled against the school’s decision, only to be suspended. The conflict became a lawsuit against the school after the Iowa Civil Liberty Union reached out to Tinker. The case made it to the Eighth Circuit Court of U.S. Appeals before being submitted to the Supreme Court, accepted, and finally, in 1969 the court ruled 7- 2 in favor of Tinker. Not only did they win the case, Justice Abe Fortas famously stated, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Tinker received much of her rebellious spirit and conviction from her father, a Methodist pastor. Tinker shared, “My dad, he believed in putting his ideals into action on Earth.” Tinker’s father did just that when he stood up for the African American children who were prohibited from using the Alantic public swimming pool. “They told him to leave town and he lost his church, he lost his job- we had to move [and] we lost our house,” Tinker recalled a laundry list of hardships. After this, the family packed up and settled down in Des Moines. There, Tinker said she enjoyed an ordinary childhood filled with rollerskating and slumber parties- that is until she found a cause of her own.
Similar to her father, Tinker experienced strong opposition to her cause. “People started throwing red paint at our house, someone threatened to bomb our house that Christmas eve and they called us communists,” Tinker mentioned all this in a casual tone. She continued in her off- handed manner, “This lady called and threatened to kill me on the phone and I was like Ah! These people are crazy!” There were moments where Tinker said she lost hope during this ordeal, she added, “It happens even now, sometimes I lose hope because I see so much hate and war and violence in our world and I get very discouraged, but I get hope again by being with all of you and hearing about how all of you are paying attention to what’s going on and you want to take the world forward to a better place.”
Tinker shared her advice to young adults aiming to ‘take the world forward’, “Get together with a few other students or even one and talk about what your issue is and maybe look online see what other students around the country are doing about that; think about how you could use your five first amendment rights to change things.” Tinker emphasized the significance of support, no matter how small. “No way- no, students do not realize that when you join together or if your speak up about some issue it is so powerful.”
Tinker believes speaking up is important, especially in these ‘mighty times’, a phrase Tinker used at several points during her presentation. She explained the term, “A time that is very intense with a lot of issues that are so important for not only our country, but our world- a time when what we do now is going to determine the future very much.” Tinker spoke from past experience–from the mighty times in which she grew up. Now Tinker offered her insight, “Adults in the future are going to look back and say what did you do? What was your role? Did you help promote love? Did you help promote understanding?” She concluded, “You don’t choose when you’re born but you do choose how you respond.”