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50 Years Later: Mary Beth Tinker Talks About Her Black Arm Band

Courtesy of Mary Beth Tinker
A hate letter the Tinkers' received during the court proceedings

  It’s been more than 50 years since Mary Beth Tinker was suspended for wearing a black arm band to school in protest of the Vietnam War, leading to the 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District.

“It was mighty times,” she says about the case and the controversy surrounding it and the Vietnam war. “And as I tell kids, now we’re living in mighty times again.”

Tinker had no idea that wearing the black armband would result in a national debate over students’ rights to free speech. She was in junior high school at the time but says that coverage of the war on television was hard to watch.

“That Christmas, it was really just escalating. … On the news, we would see images that were very upsetting and sad for us kids. Soldiers laying on the ground, kids running from their burning huts, Walter Cronkite announcing the body count every day.”

Democracy is taken care of by the citizens. Take it seriously; this isn't a world where someone else takes care of things and we all go about our lives. We have to take it seriously. - John Tinker

  So, when her brother and some other Iowans had an idea for how they could protest, she was all in favor. Exactly who thought of the black arms bands, she doesn’t remember but says the idea originated as a bit of road trip conversation.

“Some people from Iowans for Peace, including my mother and my brother, went off on a van to protest from Washington, D.C., and on their way back, they were talking about what they could do in Des Moines to protest the war.”

During this hour of Talk of Iowa, Tinker talks with host Charity Nebbe about the fallout after she was suspended, the emotional turmoil the case caused within her own family, and her message for young people today. 

Her brother, John Tinker, also joins the conversation toward the end of the hour. 

Mary Beth Tinker is speaking tonight in Iowa City at the public library at 6:00 p.m. 

EducationFree speech
Lindsey Moon is IPR's Senior Digital Producer
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa