With the controversial Gulf of Tonkin event of 1964, the Vietnam War began to escalate,
and the Tinkers became involved with “Iowans for Peace.” Their family friends, the Eckhardts,
who were members of the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines, were also members. By the fall
of 1965, about one thousand U.S. soldiers had been killed in Vietnam, and one of the first national
protests against the war took place in Washington, D.C. that November. John Tinker, Mary Beth’s
older brother, and his mother, Lorena Jeanne, as well as John’s friend, Chris Eckhardt, and his
mother, Maggie, attended. On the way back to Des Moines in a van, the idea of wearing black
armbands came up, first raised by Herbert Hoover, an area Quaker, and a distant cousin of
President Herbert Hoover.3
Two years earlier, the writer James Baldwin, along with civil rights leader Bayard Rustin,
had called for black armbands to be worn throughout the country to mourn four young girls who
had been murdered by the KKK in the Birmingham church bombing.4 One of the memorial
services was held in Des Moines, where Bill Eckhardt, the father of Chris Eckhardt, wore a black
armband as he addressed the crowd.
By Christmas of 1965, the idea of wearing black armbands to school had taken hold among
students in Des Moines, particularly at Roosevelt High School, at which Chris Eckhardt attended
tenth grade. Fifty students signed up to wear armbands on December 16. The message was to
mourn the dead on both sides of the war. When one of the students wrote an article about their
plan for the Rough Rider, the student newspaper, the principal learned of the plan and called a
meeting of the Des Moines principals, who quickly passed a preemptive rule that any student
wearing a black armband to school would be asked to remove it and, if refusing, would be
On December 14, two days before the planned student action, an article appeared in the
Des Moines Register, detailing the new rule against black armbands. Initially, Reverend Tinker
said he did not want his children to break any rules by wearing the armbands to school. The
children reminded him that he had stood up for his beliefs and he had always preached to follow
one’s conscience. Mary Beth remembers her father taking the children to the graves of his friends
killed in the Second World War, saying, “If one does not take action, we could have the Nazis
again.” He later testified in court how he came to support his children following their consciences.
Mary Beth was surrounded by other examples of family and friends who took action
because of deeply held beliefs. The NAACP voted the Tinker family the Iowa Family of the Year
in 1963. Dr. Tinker, Mary Beth’s mother, a psychologist, had supported Edna Griffin in her sit-in
protest at Katz Drug Store for denial of service because of her color.
Now, as Mary Beth watched daily news reports about the killing of people in Vietnam and
saw the body bags of soldiers coming home, she made the emotional decision to wear the
On December 16, 1965, Mary Beth walked with her friend Connie to Warren Harding
Junior High School. As they stopped at the candy store on the way, Connie warned Mary Beth that
she would get into trouble if she wore the armband into the school. Mary Beth responded that this
was her way of supporting the Christmas truce in Vietnam proposed by Robert Kennedy.
Once at school, there was no trouble going to her morning classes. Although she ignored
the boys in the lunchroom who teased, “I want an armband for Christmas,” she felt intimidated.
When she got to her math class, her teacher, Mr. Moberly, gave her a pink slip and told her to
3 CHILDREN AND THE LAW: CHILD VS. STATE 6 (Janet W. Steverson ed., 1st ed. 2002).
4 AP, JFK and the Civil Rights Movement, CBS NEWS, https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/jfk-and-the-civil-rights-
movement/7/ (last accessed Apr. 10, 2019).