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From School to Supreme Court

Some of the Supreme Court's biggest cases began with the protests of young people. Here are three tales of students who spoke out and got the Supreme Court to listen.

Mary Beth Tinker

How one teenage protester took on the system and won the right of free speech for students across the country.

In 1965, Mary Beth Tinker spent her evenings like most 13-year-old girls in Des Moines, Iowa. But every now and then, things would set her apart from the herd — like the time in history class when she questioned America's growing military involvement in Vietnam. "Mary," her teacher scolded, "there's a pep rally this Friday; don't you ever think of having fun?"

To Mary, protest seemed natural. Her parents, both Quakers with strong antiwar convictions, had been taking their children to civil-rights demonstrations from the time they could hold picket signs. So on December 16, when Mary showed up in school wearing a black armband, the other kids didn't think too much of it. Little did they know that history was in the making.

The armband symbolized Mary's support for a Christmas truce in Vietnam. The principal didn't like it, and suspended her. According to school board president Ora Niffenegger, the armband was potentially a "disturbing influence." Besides, he said, "Our country's leaders have decided on a course of action and we should support them."

By week's end, four more students, including Mary's older brother John, had been suspended for wearing armbands. The Tinker family got a lawyer. At the next school board meeting, Craig Sawyer, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), asked that the students be reinstated. A board member asked him in return if he would also support a student's right to wear an armband with a Nazi swastika on it. "Yes," Sawyer replied, "and the Jewish Star of David, and the Cross of the Catholic Church, and an armband saying, 'Down with the School Board.'"

The board voted 4-3 to continue the ban on armbands. The Iowa Civil Liberties Union filed suit in federal court, saying the ban violated the students' First Amendment right to freedom of expression.

Focus of Anger

In the meantime, Mary and the other suspended students were allowed to return to school. They traded in their armbands for black clothes to continue a protest of sorts. As the case was publicized, however, the Tinkers became the focus of anger in Des Moines. A radio talk-show host offered to pay the court costs for anyone who used a shotgun against Mary's father.

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where in a historic ruling in 1969, Justice Abe Fortas wrote that neither teachers nor students "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of expression or speech at the schoolhouse gate." Des Moines school officials, he noted, had allowed students to wear political buttons of all sorts, including symbols of Nazism. They had no right to single out a protest against the Vietnam War for suppression. Mary Beth Tinker had had her day in court and won.

Today, Mary is a pediatric nurse in St. Louis, Missouri, and has grown to appreciate what she did as a teenager. She frequently speaks to students involved in First Amendment battles. The issue today is not the Vietnam War but the battle against the spread of AIDS and teen pregnancy, she says. Many students want the right to tackle sex-education issues in class and in student newspapers, but are being denied. "If [my case] has enabled kids to speak up more freely, then I'm glad," Mary says, "because they certainly need to be heard. Especially now."

Barbara Johns

Asking the Court to end segregation seemed like "reaching for the moon," but Barbara Johns knew she had to follow her beliefs.

By the winter of 1950, going to school had become a daily struggle for 16-year-old Barbara Johns. Every morning she dragged herself out of bed in her rural Virginia home to board an aging, ramshackle bus. If the bus made it all the way to R. R. Moton, her segregated, all-black high school, she began the daily chore of coping with inadequate facilities. Half the classes were taught in tar-paper shacks that were sometimes mistaken for a chicken farm by travelers.

In those days, black students were barred by law from attending the same schools as whites, a policy known as segregation. One day, when some boys from shop class came back from a white school to report how much better its facilities were, something in Barbara snapped. "I kept thinking about it all the way home," she remembered, "and I was still thinking about it in the morning." Soon thereafter, Barbara Johns hatched a plan that would wind up in the Supreme Court as part of the historic Brown v. Board of Education case ending legal segregation in the United States.

On April 23, 1951, she put the plan into action. Just before 11 a.m. that day, Boyd Jones, principal of Moton High, got a phone call warning him that two of his students were on the verge of being arrested at the Greyhound bus terminal. As soon as he hurried off to check it out, Barbara Johns dispatched four students around the school with notes — signed with Jones's forged signature — calling a school-wide assembly. When the 450 students and teachers had collected innocently in the auditorium, Barbara stepped forward and demanded that the teachers leave. She then told the surprised student body "the facts they knew to be the truth" and urged everyone to walk out of school and stay out to protest the inadequate facilities.

"Hard to Grasp"

Within two days, lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) arrived and convinced the students to sue for desegregation. "It seemed like reaching for the moon," Barbara recalled. "It was all pretty hard to grasp."

That summer, after a cross was burned in her parents' yard, Barbara was packed into her uncle's green Buick and shipped to Montgomery, Alabama, to finish school in safety. There she learned, late in 1952, that the suit was to be heard by the Supreme Court, lumped with four other cases under the heading of Brown v. Board of Education.

The historic decision finally came on May 17, 1954. Segregation, the Court decreed, violated the right to equal protection under the law given to everyone by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Regardless of the quality of facilities, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, segregated schools created conditions of inequality.

By the time the decision came down, Barbara Johns had finished two years of college. She was married and living in Philadelphia. When she died in 1991, she had never gone to an integrated school. But thanks in part to her determination, schoolrooms of segregated tar-paper shacks were gone.

Marie and Gathie Barnett

In the face of intense school pressure, two young girls stuck to their beliefs and strengthened religious freedom for all Americans.

Ever since they could remember, Marie and Gathie Barnett had refused to take part in the most basic morning ritual of elementary school. Each day, they would stand with the rest of their class and face the flag. But while their classmates recited the Pledge of Allegiance, the Barnetts stood silent.

Mostly, teachers in their two-room schoolhouse in rural West Virginia accepted the girls' passive protest without question. If anyone asked, the girls would respond much as Gathie does today. "We were brought up that way, as Jehovah's Witnesses," she says. "We believed that saluting the flag, pledging allegiance to anything like that, was an act of worship. And we wouldn't give our worship to anything except Jehovah."

In 1942, when Gathie was 11 and Marie 9, their explanation suddenly didn't suffice. The previous December, Japanese bombers had attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, thrusting the U.S. into World War II. The flag salute turned from a daily ritual to a test of loyalty, one that Gathie and Marie failed. The girls were called out of class by their teachers.

"Salute or Go Home"

"The principal wanted to know why we hadn't been saluting the flag," recalls Gathie. "And we told him why, that it was against our worship. It wasn't that we have anything against the flag. 'Cause we don't. But he said that we would either have to salute the flag or go home. So we went home."

They took their case to court, claiming the school was violating their freedom of religion. But their case didn't look hopeful. In 1940, in a case exactly like the Barnetts', the Supreme Court had ruled it was OK for a Pennsylvania school to expel two students for refusing to salute the flag. Religious belief, wrote Justice Felix Frankfurter, "does not relieve the citizen from the discharge of political responsibilities."

But on June 14, 1943 — Flag Day — the Justices reversed themselves and declared West Virginia's flag-salute law unconstitutional. Justice Robert Jackson wrote the majority opinion. The Bill of Rights was meant to place certain cherished freedoms "beyond the reach of majorities and officials," he wrote. "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion."

Today, Gathie and Marie are both married and have grown children. Their kids, too, were sent to the principal several times for not saluting the flag. But, says Gathie, the schools "knew they couldn't do anything. It was the rule."

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