“Inspiring.” “Powerful.” “Life changing.” That’s what young people across America had to say when Mary Beth Tinker’s magical freedom bus came through their towns.
There was understandable skepticism when Mary Beth and her attorney “copilot,” Mike Hiestand, announced plans for a nationwide tour to reignite young people’s passion for the First Amendment. Would teenagers raised on iPhones and PlayStation have anything more than a yawn and an eye-roll for a 62-year-old lady rolling up in an RV to share memories about protesting the Vietnam War?
If there were doubts, they vanished when “Gabby” the RV was mobbed by high school journalists lining up to interview the retired nurse whose Supreme Court case famously secured free-expression rights in America’s public schools. It was, Hiestand recalls, “a paparazzi moment.”
“The two of us, surrounded 180 degrees by photographers in front of Gabby parked inside a convention center in downtown Boston — that made us sort of pinch ourselves and let out a few ‘wows,’” he recalls. “I think we brought history to life in a pretty special way.”
For too many young people, the Tinker Tour was the first time an adult had ever told them that they had opinions worth hearing. The crowds that flocked to the Tinker message, Mike observes, were overwhelmingly female — young women electrified to hear that a 13-year-old girl armed with no weapon but a cloth armband could break down authority’s unjust walls:
A few years ago, the Dalai Lama made headlines when he said that the world will be saved by the western woman. That’s a tall order. But as I watched young women gather around Mary Beth, one couldn’t help but wonder if he wasn’t on to something. Things need to change. And we need new, fresh ideas now more than ever. These young women are about as ‘fresh’ as we get.
Said one California high-school sophomore after her encounter with Mary Beth: “We need a better way of negotiating problems that doesn’t involve violence, and we need girls to have their rights, not only in other countries of the world, but right here in the U.S. too. All over the world, girls need rights.”
Message delivered and message received.
Round One of the Tinker Tour is history, but much more needs saying. As law professor Sonja West so effectively explained in her recent essay for Slate, young people are disproportionately affected by government decisions on which they are given no vote: “Barring the voices of children from our national debate comes at our peril. If we let children talk… we might actually learn something.”
Schools may be better places than they were when Mary Beth and her brother, John, were suspended for a peaceful political protest in 1965, but the recent trajectory is ominous.
It’s now a crime punishable by a year in jail in North Carolina to “torment” a school employee on social media — but only if you are a student. Indiana came within an eyeblink of giving principals the power to suspend or expel students who say or do anything off campus “contrary to school purposes.” A federal court in New York found no constitutionally protected right to publish a political cartoon making fun of school sex-education policies.
Extremists continue trying to roll back the clock to a time when children were property, entitled to no more rights than a dining table. It is because students’ rights are so fragile — and because young people are so intimidated by the threat of school punishment to speak for themselves — that they need adult champions like Mary Beth and Mike.
Not every champion, of course, can devote 10 weeks to living in an aluminum tube taking lukewarm showers in Wal-Mart parking lots. Meredith Cummings in Alabama, Candace Bowen in Ohio, Carolyn Levin and Jon Donnellan in New York and so many hundreds more moved mountains to make the Tinker Tour a success. But none of it would have been possible without the early show of faith by a lifelong First Amendment true-believer, Tom Eveslage in Pennsylvania, who personally committed the seed money that made an improbable fantasy suddenly seem within reach. Tom held hands with Mike and Mary Beth and took the leap, and the journey that followed is a monument to the strength of his faith.
A new year is coming, and new champions will need to step forward. Mike and Mary Beth raised more than $50,000 through an online crowdfunding campaign to make their East Coast tour a reality, and they’ll need that much again to get the wheels turning for California and beyond. You can help.
Your tax-deductible donation can keep freedom rolling. More than 100 schools, colleges, community centers and libraries from Seattle to Oklahoma City have already spoken up and said they need a jolt of Tinker inspiration. The Tinker Tour is all about small voices making the difference. Make yours count.
Check out the Storify of Mike and Mary Beth’s journey. And follow Tinker Tour on Twitter and Facebook for more updates.