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Miami hosts students’ rights activists for 50th anniversary of Supreme Court case

Mary Beth and John Tinker, famous for their student activism, emphasized the need for students to think critically and speak up for their rights at their keynote address kicking off Citizenship and Democracy Week. The siblings spoke on Monday, Sept. 16 at Miami University's Hamilton campus to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines. The decision was a key victory for the First Amendment and student rights in public schools.

During the talk, John and Mary Beth Tinker discussed their history of activism.

John Tinker began the address with the broader context of the Tinker family's activism. John Tinker said their parents were committed to civil rights and anti-war activism. Their father, a methodist preacher, lost two jobs because of this work. John Tinker said that growing up, the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement began to intertwine.

"War, generally, is a sign that there is something really broken," John Tinker said.

Mary Beth Tinker began her fight for student's rights at age 13. She was inspired by Freedom Summer hosted by Western College of Women in 1964, as well as the bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963.

She saw the other students fighting for their lives and standing up for their rights in the aftermath of these incidents. This inspired her to wear her first black armband at 11 years old.

Black armbands have a long history of symbolizing mourning.

Mary Beth Tinker and her brother later persuaded their parents to let them wear black armbands to protest the Vietnam War.

"This is just a piece of cloth, and people are being killed," John Tinker said.

Mary Beth Tinker says that it only takes a little bit of courage to stand up for what you believe in.

"It was very scary to do something that was against the rules," she said.

Mary Beth Tinker said she was a quiet and shy girl. She faced threats to bomb her home, hate mail and death threats at 13 years old. However, she said, she was doing what she thought had to be done - standing up for peace in a time that really needed it.

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"That's the power of kids. Children see through the hypocrisy," Mary Beth Tinker said. "They send sparkly Christmas cards with sayings like, 'Peace on Earth,' but what were the adults actually doing … war, war, war."

Mary Beth Tinker said that students are in a position to make change because they're observant. Students recognize when there is a difference between what is being said and what is being done.

"Young people want adults to actually do what they say … and that goes for the Constitution today," Mary Beth Tinker told The Miami Student. "We want to live up to the ideals of the Constitution, not just have it be something we learn about to pass the SAT."

Mary Beth Tinker said that the question became what should she do with her experience. After being a trauma nurse and witnessing racial disparities in relation to violent crimes, she realized that she needed to continue to tell her story. Today, she and her brother travel all over the country speaking to students.

The rest of Citizenship and Democracy week includes a naturalization ceremony, voter registration, a showing of Knock Down the House, a blood drive and more at Miami's regional campuses. The siblings will speak again at 1 p.m. today in Wilks Theater in Armstrong Student Center on the Oxford campus.