GOOD

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."

The next summer, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) started Mississippi Freedom Summer. With white terrorism, only 5 percent of blacks were registered.

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.

The very same day, August 4th, the U.S. Navy claimed that a ship had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin. The resulting Congressional resolution escalated the Vietnam War.

On August 24th, my parents went to Mississippi to volunteer with Freedom Summer. They returned with tales of Fannie Lou Hamer, love, and shootings. I turned 12.

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 remainsthat 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.

Image via a katz / Shutterstock.com

Articles
via Library of Congress

In the months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the military to move Japanese-Americans into internment camps to defend the West Coats from spies.

From 1942 to 1946, an estimated 120,000 Japanese Americans, of which a vast majority were second- and third-generation citizens, were taken in their homes and forced to live in camps surrounded by armed military and barbed wire.

After the war, the decision was seen as a cruel act of racist paranoia by the American government against its own citizens.

The interment caused most of the Japanese-Americans to lose their money and homes.

Keep Reading
Communities
via Michael Belanger / Flickr

The head of the 1,100-member Federal Judges Association on Monday called an emergency meeting amid concerns over President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr's use of the power of the Justice Department for political purposes, such as protecting a long-time friend and confidant of the president.

Keep Reading
Politics

North Korea remains arguably the most mysterious place on Earth. Its people and modern day customs are shrouded behind a digital and physical wall of propaganda. Many people in the United States feel that North Korea is our "enemy" but almost none of us have had the opportunity to interact with an actual person who lives in, or has lived under, the country's totalitarian regime.

Even more elusive is what life is like in one of North Korea's notorious prison camps. It's been reported that millions live in horrific conditions, facing the real possibility of torture and death on a daily basis. That's what makes this question and answer session with an escaped North Korean prisoner all the more incredible to read.

Keep Reading
Communities