Letter from Birmingham Jail, via Antarctica

PalmerStationAntarctica-LetterBhamJail-smallerIt is a fantastic opportunity to be able to live and work in Antarctica. It is no less fantastic this sixteenth time than it was the first. The overall novelty may decline, but the appreciation of the splendor, and the sense of privilege in being here, does nothing but grow.

Part of the privilege is being able to represent or assist others who cannot be here. On the science side, that often means collecting organisms for colleagues who cannot come here but whose research efforts would be helped greatly by a very small amount of effort on our part to collect things for them. Almost always they are things that we would just swim over on a dive otherwise, so no extra field effort at all to collect. These colleagues often help us in return by assisting in identifications of organisms or in other ways.

On the human side, the privilege sometimes allows us to participate in something important that is meant to have global reach. Something for which having Antarctica – the least inhabited continent (and not permanently inhabited by anyone continent) – participate would make a difference that magnifies whatever personal contributions the folks here have the opportunity to make to it.

This year I was pleased when a special, and very unique for those of us from Birmingham, opportunity to make an Antarctic contribution to a global event came about. Fifty years ago, 1963, was a critical year in the Civil Rights Movement. Birmingham played a major part in the events of that year, and the city has a special commemoration all this year called Fifty Years Forward (http://50yearsforward.com/). UAB is an enthusiastic partner in the event.

PalmerStationAntarctica-LetterBhamJail3Tuesday, 16 April 2013, was the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s beginning to write his Letter from Birmingham Jail. Dr. King had been imprisoned along with many others for taking part in a non-violent protest that had not been allowed to have a permit. His letter was written to fellow clergymen who had written a letter to the Birmingham News critical of his and others' protests against the horrible and inexcusable racial discrimination that seems to have defined the Birmingham establishment in those years.

As part of the Fifty Years Forward Celebration, the Birmingham Public Library sponsored a worldwide reading of Dr. King's letter (http://www.bplonline.org/programs/1963/Letter.aspx). It is an extraordinary document. It is poignant, it is compelling. Part of me cannot imagine that things he was describing happened even though I know they did. All of me takes solace, and also much pride in my adopted city, in knowing that so much has moved forward in these fifty years. As Dr. King said, "I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom."

About six weeks ago, via a friend I was contacted by the Birmingham Public Library to see if UAB in Antarctica would be interested in participating in the event. Knowing the significance of the entire 50 Years Forward celebration and that UAB was a partner, I was happy to have this opportunity. I contacted the station management to make sure they were supportive and very quickly got an enthusiastic YES.

PalmerStationAntarctica-LetterBhamJail2At our station meeting last Saturday I announced this opportunity to the other 27 who have been the entire population of the station this past couple weeks. Lots wanted to participate, and nine of us had work schedules that would allow it on Tuesday. I had hoped that the weather would cooperate and allow us to be outside for the reading. The winds were about 15 knots, which is allowable for work requiring boating (and why some who wanted to participate could not) but considering it is Antarctica, after all, with the wind chill not exactly comfortable for concentrating on and contemplating the words in the letter, I decided that an inside reading would be better.

We gathered in the lounge part of the galley, which has a couch and a couple comfortable chairs next to a wood-burning stove. We did not read the entire letter, but I had gone through and picked out extended excerpts that I felt captured its spirit and major themes. I started the reading with the date 50 years ago and "My Dear Fellow Clergymen." We passed the letter from one to the next, ending with the winter construction superintendent reading "Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr."

BhamJailMapThe top three photos are those I took of the group during the reading. Each of us was impacted not only by what we read, but by all that we heard. It is a deeply moving document to read. It is almost inexpressively more resounding to hear read in such a setting. To me, hearing the words read were particularly compelling with respect to things that may seem relatively small compared to other things Dr. King was describing, but clearly are not. I think that the voice of another lends those aspects a poignancy that otherwise could be missed. For example, as the station manager read "when you suddenly find yourself tongue tied and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go the amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children..."

The bottom illustration is a map from the Birmingham Library web site showing all the places worldwide that participated in the event. All of us here at Palmer Station, those who were able to participate and those who could not but were with us in spirit, are very proud to be that lower-most blue circle and point. It is a privilege.

I want to end this post with the last part of the section that I read on Tuesday: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial 'outside agitator' idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds."