Wearing the Right to Free Speech on Her Sleeve
By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 16, 2005; C04
Mary Beth Tinker looks like an ordinary, middle-aged woman. Nothing about her subdued clothing, hairstyle or mannered demeanor suggests she's an answer on law school exams. Except for the black armband.
Then you hear her speak to students as she did Wednesday morning in a sultry-hot classroom at Cardozo High School on 13th Street NW, and you understand she is the black armband, after all these years.
"Kids can shake things up! That's what we need today -- to shake things up!" Tinker tells the 40 students, most African American or Latino, slouched at their desks, fanning themselves with notebooks, wondering what this woman's talking about.
Her classroom visit coincides with the celebration of Constitution Day. You know, our new national holiday? The holiday that Congress passed and President Bush signed into law last year? No?
Every Sept. 17, except this year when it's being observed today rather than Saturday, all public and private schools and universities that receive federal funding are required to teach the Constitution, one way or another. It's a hard sell, this Constitution Day. A day off -- no problem. Studying the Constitution? Ahem.
But Tinker talks the Constitution from the ground up. Maybe not exactly how the president and Congress envisioned, but these students start to get the message.
"What are some things that need changing?" Tinker's voice gets louder.
One student mumbles, "The war in Iraq."
Tinker shouts encouragement: "Yes, the war!"
"What else?" she asks.
Someone else yells, "Gas prices." A young man with rows of braids, wearing an orange Lacoste polo shirt shouts, "Poverty!"
Bingo! "That's right!" says Tinker, pumped by the response. "Gas prices are going up and wages are going down. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, have you noticed?"
"Uh-huh," comes a collective reply. Enthusiasm rises like mercury in a thermometer.
Tinker turns back the clock to another era troubled by social unrest and a war that grew bloodier by the day. 1964. Freedom Summer. Northern activists descend on the Deep South to register African American voters. "And then there was the war, the Vietnam War, just like now," Tinker says.
She pushes a button on a boombox. Jazz singer Nina Simone's voice is thick with anger in her '60s protest song "Backlash Blues":