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Tinker, Failure, Soldier, Why?

By October 16, 2017 2 Comments

Two weeks ago, I asked about the best ways to enact change in society.

While at a conference, I heard Mary Beth Tinker explain how she, a shy, rule-following junior high student in 1965, decided to wear a black armband in support of the dead on both sides of the Vietnam War as a response to Senator Bobby Kennedy’s call for a Christmas truce. The school Mary Beth attended explicitly prohibited the wearing of armbands at school. And so Mary Beth, her brother, and a few other students wore them anyway. As a result, they were expelled from school. The ACLU took up their case all the way to the Supreme Court. The 1969 Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District decision allowed for students to express their first amendment rights in public schools.

But Mary Beth didn’t just wear an armband because she felt like it. She explained that her parents taught her about God and his love. She talked about how her parents, regular white people who lived in rural Iowa, were guided by their Methodist principles and decided to help African Americans register to vote in Ruleville, Mississippi during 1964. Yes, 1964, Freedom Summer, Mississippi. Mary Beth described her parents staying in the back of the house belonging to an African American woman who was part of the registration drive. Tinker’s parents thought they heard fireworks in the evening. But it was men shooting up the front of the woman’s home, as they did most evenings.

Too often I despair of Christians, particularly with regard to social change. I read Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail that asks how long the white churches will continue to ignore their bothers and sisters’ mistreatment. I wonder why churches stick with what is safe instead of what is right. Mary Beth’s story reassures me that Christian men and women do have convictions and live them out. But these Christians don’t require fanfare or recognition. They do what is right because it is right. As a result, they inspired their daughter to do what was right. Mary Beth broke the rules and rejected her society’s idea of what was correct.

In Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary, The Vietnam War, episode six discusses the events of January to July of 1968, a tumultuous year in U.S. history. I was particularly riveted by the story of Roger Harris, an African American marine who served his country for 13 months in one of the deadliest places in the world. Harris talked about his pride in serving his country and his relief that he survived. On his flight home to Washington D.C., Harris was wearing his uniform while leaving the airport and was unable to get a taxi to take him home.

Is this respectful behavior toward a person who served his country?

But Harris’ story does not end there. In the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, many frustrated African Americans (and many students and white Americans) took to the streets in protest. Harris’ marine unit was called up for domestic service. Harris noticed that his unit was given weapons and live ammunition, just like what he was given on duty in Vietnam. Harris told his commanding officer that he would not go. “I’ve got family in Washington D. C.

I refused to go.

I didn’t make sergeant.”

I can’t help but wonder what Roger Harris thinks about the respectful/disrespectful form of protest by kneeling during the national anthem.

Did Harris receive respect for his service to his country? Did he deserve that respect?

What does it take to change our society? How long do we listen to polite requests?

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


  • George Ertel says:

    Oh, I’m sure that, just like NFL kneelers are not disrespecting the country and its people, the cab driver was not disrespecting Harris. Probably the cabbie was protesting the war. Isn’t that how you read it?

  • UnitedPastor says:

    I suppose that it’s theoretically possible that not picking up an African American might have been a protest of the war. But given the well-documented and all-too-common experience of him and tens of thousands of others, it is at a MINIMUM equally likely that the cabbie didn’t pick him up on account of his skin color. If it were me, I would automatically have assumed that the non-pickup was based on protest of the war. But that shows my privilege and experience. Mr. Harris’ experience is not the same as mine. Is that so hard to admit?

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