Ann Davies

On March 16 the university was graced with having free speech activist Mary Beth Tinker meet via Zoom to tell her life story of fighting for the first amendment and the right of students free speech throughout her life. The free speech event was held by the Society for Collegiate Journalist and the Communication Department with a good turnout of students and adults watching in person and on Zoom.

Opening the event was poet Ann Davies with her poem "Flags" describing the power, representation and speech different flags hold and what it means for those who wave them. Shortly followed after was graduating senior and poet Zoie Reynolds who specializes in slam poetry. Reynolds poem titled "Emmett Till" covered the Emmett Till bill that recently classified lynching a hate crime and how this action should have been done long ago and that even now racism and violence still exists in society.

Mary Beth Tinker is best known for her actions at the young age of 13 as well as two dozen other students that made the choice to speak out against war and fight for free speech rights. Tinker and the others wore black armbands to school to protest the United States involvement in the Vietnam war in 1965, resulting in her and 4 other students being punished. Following her actions her family was threatened, home vandalized with red paint, and even received death threats over her wearing the armband. By 1969 the case reached the Supreme Court where it was found that suspending Tinker over the armbands was a violation of students first amendment rights and set the legal standards for students free speech rights.

“We have to become activists, wherever you are you know there are issues that need to be spoken about, or things that need changed,” Tinker said. “It's only natural that young people should be in front speaking up for change and standing up because you have courage, creativity, energy and a sense of fairness.”

Tinker told of how she remembered a movement of her time similar to the Black Lives Matter movement with the children of Birmingham, Alabama and students of Farmville Virginia speaking up on the unfair treatment in their all black school. In 1963, Martin Luther King was in jail, Tinker explained, and that the students of Birmingham protested and marched against racism. Dealing with white supremacists, a bomb was put into the headquarters of the protests, the 16th St. Baptist Church, resulting in the deaths of four young girls.

“I was up in Iowa with my family... on a picnic when someone had come by and told us what had happened to all the brave children of Birmingham,” Tinker explained. “For speaking up for democracy and equality and justice and those girls were the heroes of our time they stood up and spoke up and risked their lives to do it at the same age as me and my brothers around 11 and 14.”

Following the events of Birmingham Tinker had joined protests fighting for equal rights for all citizens no matter their race and wore black armbands among other protesters in honor of the Burningham children and to mourn their sacrifice. As Tinker grew older she pursued a career in the nursing field where she witnessed firsthand how young people didn’t have a fair deal in society leading Tinker to decide to travel to spread the word to students to stand up for themselves and their rights of free speech.

“Take care of yourselves, you have to be kind to yourselves and take heart and know that you are connected to young people all over the world who are speaking up for a better way of doing things.”

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