The youth has a voice too: Mary Beth Tinker

Tinker tour USA


A special project of SPLC student press law center

A special guest speaker came to The University of Alabama last week. The speaker was none other than Mary Beth Tinker. A recently retired pediatric nurse, and the reason students are legally ‘Persons’ with a voice.

Tinker as a shy, good girl went along with her brother’s idea to promote peace and mourn the dead by wearing black arm bands on their arms. This was in 1965 during the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. When the schools caught wind of the plans they threatened all students who wanted to show up with black arm bands with suspension. But, they wore them any way.

As Tinker described her walk up to the school she comments on her built up confidence. A feeling Tinker at that point in her life wasn’t used to. Her teacher met her at the door with a pink slip and sent her on her way to the principal’s office. When sitting across the desk from the principal she lost all of her confidence and willingly handed over her armband. She was then sent home along with her brother and his friend.

The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU, then approached the Tinker family saying they would like to support them in a case against the school board. The case lost in the hearings but continued to appeal the decisions. The case eventually was picked up by the Supreme Court to be reviewed. In 1969 the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in their favor. This case granted rights to the students of public schools.

The Tinker children learned to take action for what they believe from their parents. The family was from a small town in Iowa, her dad was a priest. Just as all of America at the time, Iowa had a racial problem. Her father would speak of how God loved all the children of the world, but he couldn’t help getting upset that down the street the black children were not allowed in the pool. The pool did not love all the children of the world as God did. Eventually he convinced the City to change the rules and allow all the children in the pool but the black children still had a different water fountain they had to drink from. The town eventually fired Tinker’s father from his job at the church and the family had to move.

Tinkers mother said “We’re not communist we’re Methodist” 

Tinker’s mother took action in their new town when she noticed that the drug store down the street only hired the white people in town. Her mother picketed out front of the store and sang to draw attention to the problem. A few years later after watching the horrors of the Birmingham attacks her parents went down the Mississippi to help register black voters. While there they experienced the terrors of the time. During their time in Mississippi a black woman opened her house to them and protected them when her house was shot at during the night. With a sense of humor Tinker commented “My mother asked the woman if they should call the sheriff. The woman said ‘That is the sheriff.’”

Tinker finally realized the extent of the case in college. She was studying for nursing and she saw her name in the history textbook. Now Tinker is touring the country in a bus named Gabby. As a nurse she saw that “kids didn’t always have it so good” so she went on tour to talk to kids about speaking up for what they want. She advocates for the youth’s voice because she understands that they need to have a say. We are the most creative and imaginative when we are young. The youth has the ability to see a better future.


This brings up a problem at the University of Alabama. The University has for a few years now not designated a free speech zone. A free speech zone allows a place for anyone to promote an argument on any topic. Without this zone students must apply for ground rights through the University Administration. Does this affect our rights as students at a public university?

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