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

Three Icons of Free Speech Wore Black Armbands to Protest the Vietnam War

ByABC News
June 26, 2007, 5:18 PM

June 27, 2007 — -- 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.

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.