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Mary Beth Tinker

2019 Cristine Wilson Medal for Equality and Justice Recipient: Mary Beth Tinker

“In hearing Mary Beth speak about what she did several times, it is remarkable to hear her emphasize how important it is to take action on issues we care about even if it means there will be consequences for doing so.”

-- Written by Stefanie Wager, in a nomination letter

Photo of Mary Beth Tinker

Mary Beth Tinker was born on September 8, 1952, and grew up in Iowa. Her father was a Methodist minister, and the family also became involved with the Friends (Quakers). Her parents believed that religious ideals should be put into action, and the whole family became involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Mary Beth grew up believing in equality and the importance of advocating and taking action when you see inequality. One of Mary Beth’s early memories is of her parents going to Ruleville, Mississippi in 1964 as part of Freedom Summer, an effort organized by Robert Moses and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to register African Americans to vote.

As a 13-year-old student in eighth grade at Harding Junior High School in Des Moines, Mary Beth was strongly affected by news of the war. She and her brothers and sisters, along with other students in Des Moines, decided to wear black armbands to school on December 16, 1965, to mourn the dead on both sides of the Vietnam War. They intended to wear them until January 1, 1966. The armbands were also in support of a Christmas truce called by Senator Robert Kennedy that year. During a meeting for Des Moines School District principals on December 14, 1965, a policy was adopted that required all students wearing armbands in school to remove them. In this meeting, the principals agreed that students were to be suspended if they disagreed. Many of the students who wore them were suspended, including John Tinker, Mary Beth Tinker, Chris Eckhardt, Ross Peterson, Bruce Clark and Chris Singer. After being suspended, the Tinker family received many threats. This included having red paint thrown at their house, receiving death threat calls and hate mail.

At a January 3, 1966 meeting, the school board voted 5-2 to uphold the principals' ban. On March 14, 1966, the Iowa Civil Liberties Union filed a formal complaint on behalf of Christopher Eckhardt, John Tinker, his sister Mary Beth, and their fathers in the U. S. District Court of the Southern District of Iowa. The District Court dismissed the complaint and upheld the constitutionality of the school actions, on the basis that the students disturbed learning in their schools. After that, the justices for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit were split, leaving the District Court ruling standing. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court on November 12, 1968. In 1969, the Court ruled in a landmark decision that students in public schools do have First Amendment rights.

In 2000, the Marshall-Brennan Project at Washington College of Law at American University named its annual youth advocacy award after Mary Beth. In 2013, Mary Beth embarked on a tour across the United States to speak about student rights. During this time, she spoke to more than 20,000 students. Mary Beth continues to educate young people about their rights, speaking frequently to student groups across the country. She is an advocate for the rights of youth, particularly in the areas of health, education, and journalism. She is a retired pediatric nurse and holds master’s degrees in public health and nursing.