Want Students to Speak Up About Injustice? Teach Them About Youth Who Fought For Free Speech
A sixth-grader in Texas with the user name, "Gummy Bear," pops onto my laptop screen. She's doing a National History Day project about "rights and responsibilities" that highlights the Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines that I was a plaintiff in.
She wants to know why I wore a black armband to school in eighth grade in 1965, and why the Court ruled on February 24, 1969, that neither students nor teachers "shed their Constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
I'll talk about Mississippi Freedom Summer, which my parents took part in in 1964. Thanks to Professor Kristi Bowman, I know now how significant it was in the Tinker ruling, especially the "material and substantial disruption" exemption for student speech.
And, I'll talk about Iowa in the 1950s and '60s, when I grew up. Like now, more and more people were speaking up about the great economic and racial injustice.
One of them was my father, a Methodist minister. He complained to authorities about the local swimming pool's "whites only" policy, and was removed from his church.
My mother saw that the local drug store didn't hire "negroes," so she joined a picket line with her friend, Edna. When she started taking us kids along, it was exciting to stand up against "racial discrimination" by carrying signs and singing freedom songs.
In fact, lots of kids were standing up. In 1963, at age 10, I watched TV as the brave kids of the Birmingham Childrens' March faced German Shepherds and water hoses.
That summer, my sister went to the March on Washington with prize money she won in an NAACP essay contest on "What the Emancipation Proclamation Means to Me."
It was a huge success, leading to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, among other victories. But as the summer began, three youths were murdered by the Klan, and on August 4th, the bodies of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were found.
That fall, Mississippi high school students protested the Freedom Summer killings with buttons saying, "One Man, One Vote. SNCC." They were suspended, and went to court.
By Christmas of 1965, it was my turn to speak up. Watching burning huts and soldiers in body bags on TV, my brothers and sisters and I joined other students to wear black armbands to mourn the dead. When we were suspended, the ACLU took the case.
As Tinker wound through the Courts, the Burnside students won at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1966. Soon after, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against us. With opposite rulings in similar cases, the stage was set for a Supreme Court appeal. Burnside was not appealed, but Tinker was, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear it.
The ruling in 1969 in our favor was a victory for all public school students. Citing Burnside, the Court said a student “may express his opinions, even on controversial subjects…if he does so without "materially and substantially interfer[ing] with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school" and without colliding with the rights of others. (Burnside v. Byars.)
Since Tinker, three Supreme Court rulings have cut back on the speech rights of students: Bethel v. Fraser, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, and Morse v. Fraser. But the basic precedent of Tinker remains—that students do have free speech rights in public schools.
So, here's to Freedom Summer, and to young people who speak up for a better world. I've met so many as I travel this year with the Tinker Tour. You can learn more about it on our website, or follow us on twitter @tinkertour. Thanks, and happy February 24th!
Click here to support and spread the word about this spring's Tinker Tour.
Mary Beth Tinker was one of the plaintiffs in a landmark students' rights case called Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, which involved the freedom of speech. Tinker is a registered nurse and education activist and is traveling across the U.S. to promote youth activism with the Tinker Tour.
This article was submitted by the Zinn Education Project.
5 Dire Climate Change Predictions In honor of the People's Climate March and this year's U.N. Climate Summit, here are some of the most alarming ways global warming is predicted to change life as we know it.
How Your Body is Increasingly Like a Car Breakthroughs in bio-printing and artificial organ creation usher a new era of replaceable parts.
12 Times Leslie Knope Totally Nailed Being a Feminist As we wait for Parks and Recreation’s final season, we recall 12 of its most slyly subversive, gender moments.
The Landscape Artist An interview with Daan Roosegaarde Daan Roosegaarde’s interactive designs push human beings beyond the topography of the self.
What if Simply Playing Soccer Could Power a Whole Village? Uncharted Play's Soccket balls ingeniously turn kinetic energy into electric current.
Next Time You're at a Pretentious Exhibition, Just Change It Güvenç Özel shows how a digital solution can augment a physical problem.
A Mosaic Shines in Philly A intimate conversation with a fixture of the Philadelphia art world.
Zaha Hadid Had a Busier Week Than You Did A posh homeware line, a math-inspired museum wing, and a blossom-shaped apartment building
London Skaters Fought Gentrification, and Won A coalition of skateboard enthusiasts just saved the birthplace of British skate culture from a future as a shopping center.
“What I Would Like to See is More Bystanders Stepping in to Take Action” The Everyday Sexism Project chronicles more than 80,000 instances of sexism around the world, and it’s making a big policy impact.
It's Not Where You're Going, It's How you Get There The future of transportation is now A look at futuristic forms of transportation that have become reality.
Inside the Minds of 11-Year Olds From Around the World A new documentary probes the special moral clarity of 11-year old children.