John Tinker was escorted off the campus of his Iowa school the morning of Dec. 17, 1965, after joining his siblings in wearing black armbands protesting the Vietnam War.
Administrators at the schools the Tinker family attended knew the silent protest was coming and created a rule banning such a display on school grounds.
Four years later, in a 7-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court said school officials were wrong to suspend the Tinker children. And that, yes, even students in public schools are protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Last month marked the 50th anniversary of that landmark decision, which has allowed hundreds, if not thousands, of peaceful protests across campuses since that time.
It’s only fitting, then, that more than 150 students at Ethical Culture Fieldston walked out of class last week to protest not only how administrators of the private school reacted to a years-old video that surfaced last month reportedly featuring some Fieldston students uttering racial epithets, but in how race overall has been handled at the school.
The sit-in did pull students out of class and obviously caused some disruption on campus. But instead of fighting against the students and seeking to discipline them for those disruptions, the administrators did the right thing — they listened.
And not only did they listen, they pledged to act on each and every one of the very reasonable demands that members of the group calling itself Students of Color Matter had made.
This is how protest is supposed to work. Highlight an important issue, get attention for that issue, and use it to enact positive change. The bravery of the students involved must be acknowledged, because despite Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, administrators could have had a much different reaction to what took place on the Fieldston campus last week.
When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, many called this a major turning point in how the United States deals with race. Because we elected the first black president, racism must be dead, right?
Even the Supreme Court thought so in 2013 when it gutted voting discrimination laws in the south originally enacted to help prevent racism in the voting booth. Chief Justice John Roberts showed how out-of-touch he is with the racial realities of this country, claiming that “things have changed dramatically.”
They haven’t, and our society has been bludgeoned by hate harder and harder, almost to the point where any gains made in the war for inclusion over the last 20 years or so have been lost.
Fieldston’s Students of Color Matter has made a big step to correcting those wrongs, but it’s just a first step. Even when all of this calms down, the school needs to effect the changes it committed to doing.
And maybe the rest of society will follow.