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Wearing the Right to Free Speech on Her Sleeve

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 16, 2005

Mary Beth Tinker looks like an ordinary, middle-aged woman. Nothing about her subdued clothing, hairstyle or mannered demeanor suggests she's an answer on law school exams. Except for the black armband.

Then you hear her speak to students as she did Wednesday morning in a sultry-hot classroom at Cardozo High School on 13th Street NW, and you understand she is the black armband, after all these years.

"Kids can shake things up! That's what we need today -- to shake things up!" Tinker tells the 40 students, most African American or Latino, slouched at their desks, fanning themselves with notebooks, wondering what this woman's talking about.

Her classroom visit coincides with the celebration of Constitution Day. You know, our new national holiday? The holiday that Congress passed and President Bush signed into law last year? No?

Every Sept. 17, except this year when it's being observed today rather than Saturday, all public and private schools and universities that receive federal funding are required to teach the Constitution, one way or another. It's a hard sell, this Constitution Day. A day off -- no problem. Studying the Constitution? Ahem.

But Tinker talks the Constitution from the ground up. Maybe not exactly how the president and Congress envisioned, but these students start to get the message.

"What are some things that need changing?" Tinker's voice gets louder.

One student mumbles, "The war in Iraq."

Tinker shouts encouragement: "Yes, the war!"

"What else?" she asks.

Someone else yells, "Gas prices." A young man with rows of braids, wearing an orange Lacoste polo shirt shouts, "Poverty!"

Bingo! "That's right!" says Tinker, pumped by the response. "Gas prices are going up and wages are going down. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, have you noticed?"

"Uh-huh," comes a collective reply. Enthusiasm rises like mercury in a thermometer.

Tinker turns back the clock to another era troubled by social unrest and a war that grew bloodier by the day. 1964. Freedom Summer. Northern activists descend on the Deep South to register African American voters. "And then there was the war, the Vietnam War, just like now," Tinker says.

She pushes a button on a boombox. Jazz singer Nina Simone's voice is thick with anger in her '60s protest song "Backlash Blues":

Just who do think I am, you raise my taxes, freeze my wages, and send my son to Vietnam.

You give me second-class houses. And second-class schools . . . .

"That was the kind of situation we were facing," Tinker tells the now-attentive students. "This is a history lesson today. It's about the First Amendment. Revolution. Some things going on in the world today just ain't right. That's why I'm wearing a black armband today."

* * *

Schools invite Mary Beth Tinker to speak year-round. But 40 years ago, when she was an eighth-grader at Harding Junior High in Des Moines, Iowa, her school suspended her for speaking out.

In 1964, Tinker was 13, one of six siblings whose father, Leonard, was a Methodist preacher teaching Quaker peace activism. He and his wife, Lorena Jeanne, taught their children to turn ideals into action. "And that was when the Vietnam War was on TV and we were watching it every evening," she says.

Tinker, her brother John, then 15, and other students decided to wear black armbands to protest the war. The Des Moines School Board got wind of the upcoming protest and banned armbands as potentially disruptive. It threatened suspension for students who wore them.

"I decided to wear the armband anyway," says Tinker. "We each have to make those decisions in life."

Tinker and four other students were suspended until they agreed to return without armbands. They came back after the Christmas break without armbands but wearing all-black clothes for the rest of the school year.

The American Civil Liberties Union helped file a complaint at U.S. District Court arguing the protest was free speech protected by the First Amendment. They lost there and at the appellate court. In 1968, the case went to the Supreme Court.

Reaction in the community was mixed. "Some people thought we were being unpatriotic," she says. Tinker's family received hate mail. Someone called on Christmas Eve threatening to bomb the house. A radio talk-show host said he'd pay for the defense of anyone who took a shotgun after the Tinkers.

But, in most ways, she was just a Midwestern teenager; her biggest concern at the appeals hearing in St. Louis was the run in her stocking.

In February 1969, the Supreme Court upheld the students' rights to free speech. In Tinker v. Des Moines School District, Justice Abe Fortas wrote the landmark opinion that neither students nor teachers "shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate."

"I was just a kid in trouble," says Tinker, who in the years since continued campaigning for peace and equal rights while working as a pediatric nurse, currently in Los Angeles. "I didn't realize for many years the significance of the case."

She has been speaking to students about the First Amendment and the Constitution for 15 years. Tinker has the constitution for it -- literally, carrying a pocket-size version with her, so she can hold it up when talking to classes: "I feel this is as important to their health as getting their vaccinations."

After the Cardozo High talk, she catches a ride with Jamin Raskin to American University. Another talk -- this time to law students. "She is invited everywhere to talk about her case, but she changes the subject to what is going on today. She has never stopped talking against war," says Raskin, an AU law professor and author of "We the Students: Supreme Court Cases for and About Students."

Raskin works with Tinker on the Marshall-Brennan Fellowship Program, which sends law students into public high schools to teach constitutional rights and responsibilities. He calls the Tinker case "one of the great First Amendment decisions of all time."

Tinker's still wearing the black armband at the law school when a student takes the microphone during a Q&A. "I'm not sure how I feel about a federally mandated Constitution Day," he says. "But if we have to have one, this is a good way to do it."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company