Then and Now: 40 years ago, Tinker and Eckhardt families solidified First Amendment rights for all students on school grounds
In 1969, three Iowa students' silent protest for peace with black armbands led to a landmark victory for student speech
It was November 1965 when teenagers John Tinker and Chris Eckhardt were on a bus to Des Moines, Iowa, after participating in a protest against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C. A discussion began about wearing black armbands to show disapproval of the conflict.
The death toll had not reached its peak, and the war was in its infant stages of public discourse. But to John, 15 at the time, and Eckhardt, 16, the lives being sacrificed in Vietnam were too many.
John described his parents as activists against discrimination and the Vietnam War. John said they raised him and his siblings to be aware of the world around them at a young age.
“We have two active wars going on right now. Back then, war and the killing was a horrible thought,” he said. “Now it just seems everyday reality. For us it was just a human reaction to a horrible thing.”
On Dec. 9, 1965, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy urged the United States to extend a 12-hour Christmas Eve truce the Vietcong in Vietnam suggested.
The Tinker and the Eckhardt families felt they had a mission after hearing Kennedy’s plea. They felt the armbands had to be worn to protest the war and support Kennedy’s urgency for a truce.
Mary Beth Tinker, John’s then-13-year-old sister, said she learned her viewpoints on moral and political issues while watching television reports from the war.
“The images from the Vietnam War on TV that we would see everyday after school … “ she said. “Like families fleeing from their homes, soldiers injured on the ground and being put in body bags.”
The armband protest became public when student Ross Peterson wrote an article about it for Roosevelt High School’s newspaper that the adviser turned over to the principal. Principals around the Des Moines Independent Community School District were also informed of the student protest, and on Dec. 14, 1965 — two days before the protest — in a secretly held meeting, they adopted a policy to ban armbands.
Tinker said he remembered being worried and felt that he and his fellow students should appeal to the principals to change the policy. When the day of the protest came around, Eckhardt and Mary Beth wore the armbands to their schools. Mary Beth was the only one at Harding Junior High School wearing a black armband.
“I was nervous and scared, and I went to my morning classes and not too much happened,” she said. “But I knew after lunch I was going to go to Mr. Moberly’s class, my math teacher. And I knew I was going to get in trouble there because the whole day before in class he talked about how kids were going to get in trouble if they wore armbands to school.”
And she did get reprimanded when the math teacher told her to go to the principal’s office where she was ordered to remove the black armband. She did. After the students were suspended, they met at the Eckhardt’s home to call the school board president. But he refused to speak to them.
John and some other students decided to wear the armbands the next day. He was told he could not return to school wearing an armband, and John complied after the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa felt they would lose a case if the students were labeled disobedient. John said he was praised by some teachers, including one teacher who asked him to talk about the Vietnam War in front of the class.
But Eckhardt’s recollection of that day is not so pleasant. Eckhardt said his father dropped him off at school that cold, snow-filled morning. His plan was to go into school, reveal the armband and immediately walk to the principal’s office to turn himself in.
“I had butterflies in my stomach, and I was scared,” Eckhardt said.
His mother, Margaret, was scared for his safety. The day before the protest, pro-war students verbally threatened any fellow students they thought were going to protest.
The principals’ ban on armbands largely succeeded. The seniors who initially were to protest feared it would hurt their chances at getting into college. But Eckhardt, a sophomore at the time, said he felt he was doing the right thing.
“When the vice principal threatened me with a busted nose, a tear fell from my eye,” Eckhardt said.
The vice principal called in an adviser who tried to convince Eckhardt to take the armband off because protesters were not accepted in college and that he was too young to have an opinion. They questioned Eckhardt about why his parents had put him up to it. Eventually, Eckhardt was suspended until he came back to school not wearing an armband.
According to the evening paper, the Des Moines Tribune, John, Mary Beth, and Eckhardt returned to school after Christmas break on Jan. 4, 1966 without armbands, but with another form of protest.
They decided to wear black clothes for the remainder of the school year. There was no opposition from school administrators or students, “and, everyone knew what it stood for,” John said.
It was during this time in 1966 that the students and their families set in motion what would become a First Amendment landmark, the case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which failed at both the district and circuit court levels.
Dan Johnston, the cooperating attorney who took on the case for the ACLU of Iowa, was a few years out of law school at the time. He said he never thought the case would go past the district court level.
“I thought we should have won at the trial court, and I thought we should have won at the Court of Appeals,” Johnston said. “And, I was surprised both times we didn’t win.”
Johnston said he took the case because he felt a strong empathy for the rights of the students because he felt they were a minority.
“They were certainly a minority in their views,” Johnston said. “They were a religious minority first of all because they were Quakers and Unitarians. And out of those religious traditions came this political view, which was a minority political view at the time, which was opposed to the Vietnam War.”
The case was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 12, 1968, and the decision was handed down in favor of the students on Feb. 24, 1969. The final ruling was 7-to-2.Eckhardt said watching Johnston argue the case in front of the Supreme Court justices was a moment he will never forget.
“Dan, as far as I was concerned, was a rooster cocked with his feathers full blown and he knew in his heart we’d won also. I felt grand, and Dan was walking on clouds.”
Justice Abe Fortas wrote one of the best-known opinions in Supreme Court history that continues to defend students’ free speech rights around the country.
“It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” Fortas wrote.
Fortas addressed the U.S. district court’s ruling that concluded the actions of the school district to punish the students who wore armbands was reasonable because they feared it would cause a disturbance.
“In order for the State in the person of school officials to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion, it must be able to show that its action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint,” Fortas wrote. “Certainly where there is no finding and no showing that engaging in the forbidden conduct would ‘materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school,’ the prohibition cannot be sustained.”
In the dissenting opinion, Justice Hugo L. Black, who had been an ardent supporter of the First Amendment, stunned the Tinker family and Johnston with his views.
“It may be that the Nation has outworn the old-fashioned slogan that ‘children are to be seen not heard,’ but one may, I hope, be permitted to harbor the thought that taxpayers send children to school on the premise that at their age they need to learn, not teach.”
Johnston said he remembered reading Black’s dissent and being disappointed because he was one of his favorite justices since his undergraduate studies.
“He was really good on free speech stuff, and he just seemed to have a blind side on this case that I’ll never understand,” Johnston said. “He was just mean.”
While John and Johnston say they do not feel the case molded their lives or careers in any direction, Mary Beth said the case defined her life, leading her to be a nurse who largely works with kids and teenagers. Today, Mary Beth travels around the country to speak at First Amendment events to encourage young children to think differently.
“I realized that kids need not only First Amendment rights, but kids have a right to clean air, clean water, a safe place to live, a place to live and a world that is safe and is not filled with so much violence,” Mary Beth said. “So, I thought if I could encourage kids to speak up for themselves and make things better for themselves in these areas, then I should do that, and I should tell them my story about the armband case and how speaking up for what you believe in can make a big difference.”
Mary Beth recalls seeing her math teacher in 1992 when the Des Moines School District invited her, John and Eckhardt back to speak.
“Mr. Moberly was there, and he gave me a big hug,” she said. “And I asked him would he do the same thing now and he said the administration made the ruling and he had to comply.”
John lives in Missouri and runs an informational Web site where he hopes more social activists will go to get educated about the world around them.
Johnston, who is semi-retired and living in New York, takes on a few cases. He said he does a lot of sailing and jokingly commented, “I answer a lot of questions about Tinker.”
As an adult, Eckhardt had a scrape with the law and served time in prison on a charge of misappropriating money. He said Tinker molded his life.
“Two out of my top five peak experience moments were, one, walking out of the Supreme Court knowing we’d won and, two, when I was officially told we won,” he said.
Eckhardt currently lives in Florida and is an advocate of human, prisoner and gay rights as expressed through his writings on his personal Web site. He said he would never take back any events that occurred in response to the lawsuit — bad and good.
“It shaped my life, it affected my life, and I loved it all,” Eckhardt said.
reports, Winter 2008-09