Reported by O. Kay Henderson, Radio Iowa

A Missouri man has marked the 50th anniversary of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that came four years after he wore a black armband to school.  John Tinker, who now lives in Fayette, created a free speech case that is still cited today.

John and Mary Beth Tinker with current Des Moines area high school students. Photo by O. Kay Henderson

In December 1965, Tinker, his sister Mary Beth, along with a friend, wore black armbands to high school in Des Moines to protest the Vietnam War. John Tinker said black armbands have been worn as a symbol of mourning for centuries.

“It’s a silent, non-disruptive symbol and so we thought it fit what we were trying to do very well,” Tinker said.

The Tinker siblings and their friend were sent home and threatened with expulsion for wearing the armbands. The parents of the three teens sued on their behalf and four years later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that a student’s right to free expression doesn’t end “at the schoolhouse gate.”

“It declared that students in the public schools are persons under the law and are endowed with their First Amendment rights,” Tinker told Radio Iowa.

Tinker and his sister were featured in a day-long event at the State Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines on Friday. More than 200 Iowa students attended. There was a national live stream discussion with students in other states as well.

“Having stood up for what we believed way back then about the war in Vietnam and having the courts vindicate us — I think that helps the students today understand that if they’ve thought about an issue and if they feel strongly about it, that they do have the right to speak out about it,” Tinker said, “and I encourage them to do that.”

Tinker and another high school student were 15 years old when they wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. His younger sister, Mary Beth, also wore an armband to school. She was 13 and in junior high.

The Tinkers will speak at Iowa State University tonight, at the University of Iowa Tuesday evening and at Drake University Wednesday evening.