History Comes Alive During Tinker Tour Stops at Harding, North

Harding principal Maureen Taylor shakes hands with Mary Beth Tinker after the school dedicated a locker in honor of her role in protecting the free speech rights of students.

Most of the cultural icons from the 1960’s have long since fallen. Tragically, many of them didn’t even survive that tumultuous decade so fraught with American history: everything from assassinations to walks on the moon to a war in Southeast Asia.

But a few endure. For example, the Stones are still (rocking and) Rolling, occasionally.

And the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling affirming students’ first amendment rights in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District has also withstood the test of time. Living proof of that was on display Tuesday in a civics doubleheader at North High School and Harding Middle School that represented a rare opportunity for local students to mine primary historical sources, not to mention ones that were homegrown.

The Tinkers themselves, sibling plaintiffs John and Mary Beth, revisited both schools in an unusual Homecoming of their very own. Des Moines is the latest stop on their Tinker Tour. By the time it ends next week in Kansas City the storied student activists from half a century ago will have traveled by RV to 18 states and the District of Columbia and logged more than 10,000 miles, the equivalent of driving across the country several times.

The tour’s major sponsor is the Student Press Law Center, a Washington nonprofit advocate for student First Amendment rights.

In a sense the tour began around Christmastime in 1965 when a handful of DMPS students defied a district rule by donning black armbands and wearing them to school in silent protest of the escalating war in Viet Nam. They were suspended, whereupon the ACLU took up the cause of those who chose to appeal their suspensions, first to the local school board and ultimately all the way to the highest court in the land which famously ruled, by a resounding vote of 7-2, that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

One of the first things that became abundantly clear as soon as they were introduced to a morning assembly (a key word in the first amendment) at North was that time hasn’t dulled the Tinkers’ activism. Their citizenship is robust, probably owing to the fact that they’ve exercised it throughout their adult lives. The presentation amounted to a pep rally for rights as promised to us all by the Constitution.

The choir they preached to included student journalists from schools around the state, including Atlantic, Storm Lake, Waukee, Pella, West Des Moines and Johnston. For at least this one day, North was as much a magnet school as Central Academy.

“Got rights?” Mary Beth hollered from the stage, a question her audience enthusiastically shouted back the correct answer to.

John recalled how the student protesters met with opposition in many forms besides the school rule they broke.

“People threatened us and splashed red paint on our driveway,” he said. “It got to be a wry joke of our mother’s that ‘people say we’re Communists, but we’re not – we’re Methodists.’”

But he also remembers the football player who stuck up for him and his right to express his opinion.

When John was sticking out as a Polar Bear in black in ‘65, his little sister was standing up at Harding and that’s why the afternoon itinerary took them there. After a roundtable discussion in the library with student government leaders and another auditorium assembly (there’s that word again) a hallway ceremony was held to retire a locker in Mary Beth’s honor. #319 will still be used by Gabriella Andrade for the rest of this year but that’s it. After that it will get a fresh coat of paint and a plaque will be mounted on the wall above it. A sort of time capsule will be stuffed inside consisting of Tinker Tour commemorative armbands, a copy of the Constitution, student newspapers gathered from around the country and other appropriate memorabilia. In the annals of student activist trivia, Gabby may now be destined to go down as the counterpart of Wally Pipp, the obscure first baseman replaced by Lou Gehrig the day the “Iron Horse” began his legendary streak of 2,130 consecutive games played.

There was an extra lot for students to think about after a day spent with people straight out of the pages of their textbooks. By what strange geometry is a circle drawn that begins in 1965 with the suspension from school of students who willfully broke a rule they conscientiously objected to and closes in 2013 with those same students coming back as guests of honor, besieged for autographs and photo opps?

Maybe that was one of the many questions posed to Mary Beth during the informal minglings that followed all of the staged events on Tuesday. If so, she probably had an answer for it. As she told the kids at Harding during her remarks in the auditorium, she was always good in math when she went to school there.

Photos of the Tinker Tour Stops at North and Harding

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