The Day I Wore A Black Armband to school:

By Christopher Eckhardt

In November 1965, I was one of the 60 people who made the trip from Iowa to Washington DC to protest – along with 20,000 other Americans – the war in Vietnam. It took us a further eight years to bring that war to an end.

The following month, in December, a group of peace lovers in Des Moines, Iowa decided to wear black armbands from December 16 to January 1 to mourn the dead on both sides in Vietnam and support Senator Robert Kennedy's call for a Christmas ceasefire. When the Des Moines School Board got wind of the plan they passed a rule that anyone wearing an armband would be suspended for upsetting the educational atmosphere of the schools.

Impending disruption

This was good example of the use of prior restraint. The school Board pretended to know that the future school environment would be endangered by wearing a black armband, and made up a rule to deal with the situation. I and four other students were, they believed, going to disrupt the educational atmosphere of 18,000 students in the school system.

But just the year before, students were asked to wear black armbands to school to mourn the loss of school spirit at basketball games. Wasn't there more than a hint here of double-standards and hypocrisy?

In December 1965, the Vietnam War was at its peak. We had 500,000 troops over there. To challenge the black armband rule in school was considered un-American and even communistic.  It was a time when many Americans forgot our Bill of Rights. My suspension form was to state simply that I was suspended because of my "refusal to comply with a school request."

I should at this stage give you a bit of personal history. I had been the president of two separate school student councils, a Boy Scout, an honor roll student and youth church leader. I was on the track team and had fishing and weight lifting trophies. I had two newspaper routes, a lawn mowing and snow removal service. I was voted most likely to succeed by my class and also voted the student with the cleanest locker. What can I say – I was Mr. Clean.  I had a girlfriends and also good close male friends. I was an All-American boy.

Civil disobedience

But on December 16, 1965, I followed the path of Henry David Thoreau, who advocated breaking unjust rules or laws by the practice of civil disobedience. Like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr, they too broke rules and the law when their consciences said that breaking a rule was more important than following one.

Adolph Eichmann was a Nazi who was partly responsible for killing over six million Jews and millions of gays, gypsies, the handicapped and socially "undesirable." His defense was "I only followed orders."

After careful thought I independently decided that the School Board had crossed the line of our Bill of Rights and was infringing on the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by our First Amendment.

My father, a doctor in Des Moines who was active in the movement for peace and civil rights, dropped me off at Theodore Roosevelt High School on the morning of December 16th with my black armband attached with a safety pin to my camel jacket. It was snowy and cold and my exterior courage was tempered by my dry throat and butterfly stomach.

When I was turning myself in that morning, I was threatened by fellow students on the way to the principal's office. I heard one say to another – "Go ahead, do what you said you were going to do to anyone wearing a black armband."

When the assistant vice-principal of the school finally saw me, he asked me to remove my armband. I refused and attempted to explain the First Amendment to him, to which he replied, "Do you want a busted nose?" To which I replied, "No." He then called my mother to get her to remove my black armband. My mother was president of the local chapter of the Women's International League of Peace and Freedom. He obviously did not know my mother.

He then brought in the girls' advisor who told me that I would never get into college because colleges didn't take protestors. She also told me I should use my suspension time to look for another school. I informed her I would be coming back to my same school. And I did attend college. 

The legal battle

The School Board voted 5-2 against us. Finally three out of five of us who wore black armbands decided to sue the School Board – John Tinker, his sister Mary Beth Tinker and myself. The US District Court ruled against us. Our attorney testified before three members of the Eighth US Circuit Court of Appeals, who thought it important enough to be heard by all eight judges. They split 4-4, which was another loss for us.

Finally the US Supreme Court heard our case and in February 1969 ruled 7-2 in our favor. The court said the School Board had indeed violated our First Amendment rights. I was grateful to the Iowa Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU for supporting us and helping set a precedent for student rights.

I later went on to become conscientious objector on moral and ethical grounds. I'm not sure exactly why we are here, but I do believe we are not put here to kill one another and I refuse to play that game.

I have not been hurt by my opposition to the Vietnam War. The US Department of Justice went on to train me as a mediator – a position I held for five years. I obtained FBI and Secret Service clearance to cover the Wounded Knee uprising in South Dakota as a publisher and reporter for my own newspaper. I also hosted my own prime time public affairs TV show.

I hope that if you have learned just one thing during our short time together it is that you as one person can make a difference, just as I did. It was one person after another that finally ended the Vietnam War.

I am a patriot and I ask you to stand up for what is right, whenever anyone challenges our Bill of Rights. I hope that in another 25 years one of you will be up here, telling your story of your struggle to keep the Bill of Rights alive. Unless you guard and fight for it and use it, we will surely lose it.

If you think your school, administration or rules are violating your rights, stand up and fight for what you believe in. When you can register to vote, vote. Fight for peace not war. 

I leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Justice Abe Fortas' opinion in my case: "School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students in school as well as out of school are 'persons' under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights, which the Senate must respect... In the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views."

Join the struggle and keep our Bill of Rights healthy.  Thank you!

Christopher Eckhardt's speech to students in Boston, December 3, 1991.  Printed in Bill of Rights Network, winter 1991.