The Background: Speaking Out at Thirteen Years Old


Cara Brashears

Mary Beth Tinker speaks to students outside her tour bus at the JEA Convention in Boston on Nov. 15. Tinker travels the country to spread her message about the importance of the First Amendment.

Cara Brashears, Online Editor

Continued from Mary Beth Tinker: Taking Her Rights on a Tour:

Walking through the halls with a shy smile, a middle school girl proudly adorned a new black cloth wrapped around her arm. Five others stood by her side, matching her unique jewelry with bands of their own. Mournful thoughts of death in the Vietnam War swirled in her head, yet she hoped that with this small movement, she could encourage others to support Robert F. Kennedy’s call for a Christmas truce. But moments later, she faced every timid little girl’s nightmare, and found herself staring in the eyes of the principal across a hard wooden desk. The words echoed: “You’re suspended.”

Mary Beth Tinker, 13 years old at the time, found herself removed from Harding Middle School in Des Moines, Iowa, with no clue what to do.

“I was this shy young kid; I was naïve,” Tinker said. “I didn’t seem like a war protester. But then I realized it was important for me to stand up for a better world. I was a big advocate for peace, and I needed to take charge.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) heard about the suspension and did not think that was right, Tinker said. As a big advocate of Bill of Rights, the company came and offered a lawyer to her to take to court in the Tinker vs. Des Moines case.

Judges of the local courts claimed the armbands were controversial and disruptive to the learning environment, Tinker said. But the students argued that other kids were doing the same thing – they wore crosses, other country’s symbols and political campaign buttons, yet their principal had no problem with those.

“Then once we wore the armbands just to show we were sad about the Vietnam war, suddenly that wasn’t okay,” Tinker said.

After four years of legal fighting, Tinker’s case elevated to the Supreme Court, and finished with a ruling in the students’ favor.

“It was simply unconstitutional,” Tinker said. “It is not up to the government to decide what view is okay. That’s a big reason why we won.”

With a landmark case under her belt, Tinker said it was a challenge to figure out what to do with the experience. She said she now aims to spread her belief that everyone should take the things they go through in life, take their gifts and talents and use them in a way to help young people.

“Kids don’t have it so good in our society – they’re not a top priority,” Tinker said.  “So that’s what I decided what to do with this case: Encourage young kids. Just because we’re kids doesn’t mean we should be quiet and not say anything. Most children are very affected by war and other issues, and if we can use the impact of free speech to solve those problems, that’s incredible.”

Next: The Motivation and Impact