The Tinker Tour is halfway home, but there’s room on this freedom bus for everyone

On my third day on the job at the Student Press Law Center, I got a phone call from Mary Beth Tinker. “THE Mary Beth Tinker?” I remember asking, no less incredulous than if Elvis had dropped by to split a peanut butter sandwich. Because if your music is the Bill of Rights, Mary Beth Tinker is Elvis — except she never went Vegas. She’s still keeping it real, 48 years since that day at a Des Moines junior high school when her suspension for defying a ban on antiwar armbands helped provoke Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, history’s greatest judicial validation of First Amendment rights in schools.

I warmly remembered Mary Beth’s neighborly January 2008 phone call, a moment’s kind gesture from a person much busier and more important than I’d ever be, when nearly five years later, the phone rang again with an improbable proposition. Could the SPLC help launch Mary Beth and her attorney “co-pilot/navigator” Mike Hiestand on a nationwide RV tour, raising awareness of the importance of young people’s constitutional rights, like Johnny Appleseed for freedom of speech.

It seemed wildly ambitious — and a little kooky. I couldn’t say “yes” fast enough.

With the support of some amazing true-believers — longtime Temple University journalism professor Tom Eveslage and our friends at the Journalism Education Association were among the first to vote with their checkbooks, making it possible to attract some 250 other donors, large and small — the “Tinker Tour” became a reality when, on Sept. 17, the freedom bus took off from Philadelphia on its 15,000-mile itinerary.

The SPLC’s staff was excited to be a part of the festive kickoff at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center — but we wanted to do more to honor the commitment of two people who’d agreed to put their lives on hold and spend 10 weeks in a rolling sardine can circling the eastern United States, just to make life a little better in America’s schools.

None of us could make that level of commitment, but we could all do something. Here’s what I did. It’s a song — an anthem, I hope — that tries to capture the spirit of what I felt that September day in Philadelphia seeing Mary Beth take the stage and fire up a group of young listeners about the change a few determined people can make when they take a principled stand.

We were fortunate to find a stellar high school broadcasting program at California’s Carlsbad High School, under the guidance of adviser Doug Green, who recruited the Carlsbad High chamber singers and their teacher, Jessie Bullock, to record their uplifting version of “Get on the Bus.” It’s the soundtrack to this Tinker Tour highlight reel that we hope will give you a little flavor of the excitement that’s building across the country.

If you feel like you’ve missed the bus, never fear. Dozens more stops are planned up and down the eastern United States this fall, and Mike and Mary Beth are seeking sponsors for an encore in the spring that will include the West.

Get on that freedom bus, folks — and be proud to be on the right side of history.