SEVIERVILLE — Fifty-two years ago today, Mary Beth Tinker was a teenager waiting to hear what Supreme Court justices would say about her case.
In January, the activist in 1969’s Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District spoke with students in the AP Government class taught by Angela Wells at Sevier County High School. The meeting was a virtual one due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“In 2019, Mary Beth and her brother John, who was also involved in the Tinker v. Des Moines case, went on the Tinker Tour to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the case,” Wells said.
“There was a promotion they were running where a teacher could sign up, and a black armband — like the ones they wore to school in the case — would be sent to you.”
In December 1965, when Tinker was a 13-year-old student at Warren Harding Junior High School, she joined a group of approximately 24 elementary, middle and high school students who wore black armbands to their schools in protest of American involvement in the Vietnam War.
Principals in the Des Moines Independent School District suspended five of the students who wore armbands, including Tinker and her brother, John. Administrators argued that the armbands were disruptive to learning.
The case made its way to the Supreme Court, where justices handed down a decision on Feb. 24, 1969. They upheld the First Amendment rights of students, and the case has served as a benchmark of free speech for five decades.
The meeting with Tinker is one that Wells started laying the groundwork for two years ago, though at the time she simply wanted a piece of cloth to show her students.
“I had missed the deadline, so I sent an email to the Tinker Tour website asking if I could possibly purchase one as a prop or example to use in my class,” said Wells. “This was in May of 2019.
“I never heard anything and forgot about it,” she continued. “In April of 2020, during the shutdown, I received an email from Mary Beth Tinker apologizing for overlooking my request. She wanted to make it up to me, so she offered to do a virtual meeting with my AP students.”
Tinker offered to speak to Wells’ students in 2021, as well.
“In AP Government, we cover civil liberties and Civil Rights as part of the curriculum, so this is where her case comes in,” Wells said of Tinker. “It is a required case of study in the AP Government and Politics curriculum, as well as a case that every student in Tennessee must study per the U.S. Government standards.”
Wells said the teens in her high school classes can relate to Tinker, who was younger than they are when her actions led to what would become a landmark Supreme Court case.
“The students enjoy this case because Mary Beth Tinker and her brother and friend were young students such as themselves,” said Wells. “Her case protects the First Amendment right to the free speech of students in schools, as long as it is not disruptive.”
“She also talked to them about the importance of knowing their First Amendment rights and exercising them, and that students can make a difference — that they matter and their opinions matter,” Wells continued. “She was impressed that we offer a student journalism class — taught by Kristi Atchley — and have a student newscast, as very few schools offer that across the country.”
Wells says her students sent SCHS Smoky Bear merchandise to Wells to express their gratitude for speaking with them.
“It was a great connection from what they learn in the classroom to real-world events,” Wells said.
Contact Juli at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @NeilWatsonJ.