Now Middle-Aged, Student Protesters Echo Triumphs and Casualties of the 1960s

Mary Beth Tinker was only 13 when she had her political awakening. Growing up the daughter of a minister in a working class neighborhood in Des Moines, Iowa, she watched with fear as the Vietnam War escalated.

"We would come home from school and watch the evening news and see images of burned villages, children crying, soldiers injured and dead and talk of war all the time," said Tinker. "There was so much uncertainty among families and boys."

It was 1965 and for Tinker, her 15-year-old brother, John, and his friend Christopher Eckhardt -- all of whom had joined their parents in civil rights and peace activism -- taking their anti-war stance to school was a natural step.

Icons of a blossoming student free speech movement, the trio were suspended after they defied their school principals and wore black armbands to school. Their protest set in motion Tinker v. Des Moines — the landmark 1969 Supreme Court case that ruled that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

The high-profile court case catapulted the teens into the public eye at an early age, and their later lives reflected both the triumphs and casualties of the turbulent 1960s.

Today, Mary Beth Tinker is a nurse, caring for her ailing mother. John Tinker runs a liberal-leaning Web site, and Eckhardt lives in a homeless shelter, after he was convicted of a felony he claims he never committed.

New Restrictions on Tinker Case

All are in their 50s now, but they have found political common ground again as a more conservative Supreme Court has placed new restrictions on the historic ruling that defined their lives.

June 25, in a 5-4 ruling, the Court ruled in Morse v. Frederick that Alaska public school officials had not violated a student's free speech rights by punishing him for displaying a "cryptic" drug-themed banner during a public event. The court overturned a lower court decision that cited the 38-year-old Tinker case.

The three Tinker plaintiffs have joined civil liberties groups in lambasting the so-called "Bong Hits for Jesus" ruling, saying it was one more nail in the coffin of First Amendment rights for students.

They also took time to harken back to that turbulent time, in many ways the blossoming of America's youth movement, and reflect on the changes they've undergone in the four decades since the Supreme Court ruling.

From a Small Plan Grew a Movement

In December 1965, John Tinker and Chris Eckhardt had just returned from a peace march in Washington, D.C., when the idea of protesting the war germinated. A group of adults and students met and proposed wearing armbands and fasting on Dec. 16 and New Year's Eve.

The Tinkers -- with six children -- had an ecumenical household. Their father was a Methodist minister, but their mother worked with the Quakers on peace initiatives. The children were active in the Unitarian youth group.

"My father taught us that the core of Jesus' teaching was about peace," said Mary Beth Tinker, now 54. "It was Christmastime, and growing feelings about the war were heightened."

The Tinkers' high school principal read about the planned protest in the student newspaper and notified other city schools, who banded together to ban the armbands. But the three students ignored the ruling and wore them to class Dec. 16.

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