I Could Not Sit By and Watch This Happening

by Mary Beth Tinker

In 1965, I was 13 years old and in the eighth grade at the Harding Junior High in Des Moines , Iowa .   In 1965 there were two major issues in the news. The civil rights movement was rocking the country. The other major issue was the Vietnam War.

It was on TV news every day, in the papers and in the conversation of our parents and friends. Many boys in high school were preparing to be called up for the draft, and the tension for them was great.

The Vietnam War was a civil war between North and South Vietnam . The United States fought on the side of South Vietnam . As I learned more about the Vietnam War, I did not think that it was right to fight in another country's civil war with the aim of controlling that country.

I was also disturbed by the atrocities – the horrible gruesome things that were being done to the Vietnamese people. The evening news was filled with pictures of US soldiers burning homes. We saw pictures of children and adults who had been burned by a new US weapon called napalm, a sticky jelly-like chemical that US troops would drop from planes onto Vietnamese villages. I could not sit by and watch this happening to kids thousands of miles away on the other side of the world.

In December 1965, Senator Robert Kennedy called for a Christmas truce in Vietnam . Students around the country decided to support this call by wearing black armbands to mourn for the dead on both sides of the war. Some students from Des Moines , including myself and my brothers and sister, decided to join in.

The day before we wore the armbands, my algebra teacher told the class that "anyone who wears an armband was going to be suspended." That night we had to decide whether to wear the armbands or not. My brothers, sister and I decided to go ahead because it was form of peaceful expression. We felt the issue of the Vietnam War was as important to students as algebra, English and football. We felt the war was a life or death issue that needed to be addressed. 

When I got to school, the kids were curious about the armband and we talked about the Vietnam War, mostly outside of classes but also during social studies class. Some kids didn't think I should have worn the armband, but I don't remember any real hostility.

After lunch I went to algebra and my teacher was waiting at the door. He told me to go to the office. At the office, I was suspended and went home.

After we were suspended, we wore black clothes for the rest of the year. Our family got threats  - threats that the house would be bombed, that I would be killed.

To make a long story short, some of us - my brother and myself and a boy named Chris Eckhardt - and our families took the case to court. The American Civil Liberties Union provided our lawyer.

The US district court ruled against us. Then the case went to the appeals court where the judges were tied: 4 against us and 4 in favor.  Finally, the US Supreme Court heard the case in February 1969 ruled in favor of us by a 7-2 vote. The court said the school had violated out First Amendment rights.

In the late 1980s the rights of students have been weakened as the court has ruled on other students' cases.  But I would like to leave you with one message: you students are strong. The world has a lot of problems, but many people are working on these problems. You can join with them and help to build the kind of world that you want. Stand up for your rights. You have more power than you may think - all you have to do is realize it and use it!

Mary Beth Tinker addressing Boston students on May 6, 1992.  Printed in Bill of Rights Network, Spring 1992.