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


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.

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.

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.

"It didn't feel fair, but it was against the rules," she said. "I was a preacher's kid and was a goody-goody. But I knew the concept of conscientious objection from my upbringing, after my parents told me that rules had been broken to oppose slavery."

When the American Civil Liberties Union agreed to take on the case, the students testified at all the local depositions.

"I didn't think we'd win," said Tinker, who was only 15 when the Supreme Court ruled in their favor. "I was happy, but I had all the emotions of a young teenager who was more worried about having a run in my stocking. I didn't know the historical importance of the issue."

Today a nurse and teacher, Tinker is passionate about promoting student free speech and works with teens in schools.

"Columbine started a wave of feeling that kids needed to be controlled and they were somehow a dangerous group of people to be feared," she said. "Kids need to be able to express themselves because in a democracy the ones who are affected should have a voice."

In 1969, flying stand-by to Washington, D.C., John missed his day in court. He later dropped out of college and lived in a truck for six years, then went on to organize humanitarian projects: taking sewing machines and bicycles to Nicaragua and serving as an election observer in Mexico.

"I was proud to be a hippie," John Tinker told ABC News. "I paid attention to the world and didn't zone out, but I agreed with the counterculture."

Now 56, John Tinker is the father of two young children and just bought an old school near his sister and mother, where he houses a collection of computers, cameras, antique electronics and printing presses.

"I do most of my activism around information," he said, posting articles pertaining to free speech on his Web site He continues to support peace groups and, when asked, speaks at schools and colleges.

"Being against the war was not a popular position to take back then," he said. "Our parents supported us, but they didn't put us up to it. I had grown up in the civil rights movement and had been criticized for my opinions, so it wasn't traumatic for me. It was somewhat like guerrilla theater."

John, a top student in high school, still holds a soft spot for the principal who suspended him in 1965.

"He told me I was wrong and had to support the government," said Tinker, who later received an award from the beleaguered principal. "I never got the sense that he held it against me."

Tinker and his high school friend Chris Eckhardt drifted apart over time, but reconnected last year after Eckhardt was released from prison.

"He's been through the ringer emotionally," said John Tinker.

Eckhardt, now 56, told ABC News he had been a tireless advocate for social justice after high school, registering as a conscientious objector and working as a reporter at the Wounded Knee standoff between federal authorities and American Indian militants in 1973. After graduating with accolades from the University of Florida in 1994, he worked as a computer programmer and stockbroker.

But in 2001, he was charged with exploitation of the elderly after befriending an older man who, according to Eckhardt, willingly deeded him property. The legal documents were later contested, and, in a failed attempt to defend himself, he lost the case.

Eckhardt served more than four years in prison and was released in 2006 to a homeless facility. Now, still on probation and working as an energy consultant, he has earned the right to live in his own apartment there.

"My real crime," Eckhardt said with the fervor of his generation, "was being a Vietnam protester, U.S. Supreme Court winner, liberal Democrat in a Vietnam veteran, Republican courtroom, shortly after 9/11."

"These are perilous times," said Eckhardt, who is chronicling his story on a blog that bears his prison number — "But this is still a wonderful country. Where else could I be a gay man and write all about my life on my own blog?"