For Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., even a simple meal was infused with meaning. In a sermon nearly a half century ago, he walked listeners through a menu of common kitchen staples—English toast, Chinese tea, South American coffee—and observed: “Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world.”
Americans often focus on Dr. King’s heroic efforts at home, but his global outlook also deserves our attention and respect. His views about interdependence are more relevant than ever, especially for thinking about trade, technology, and globalization.
In most American kitchens, the origins of those breakfast items have likely changed over the years. But the fact remains that many of the products we depend on everyday are sourced from abroad or include some foreign content. The result is greater variety and lower prices, two critical yet often underappreciated benefits of trade.
These benefits are particularly important for lower- and middle-income Americans, who spend a greater percentage of their incomes on heavily-traded items such as food and clothing. According to the Council of Economic Advisors, median-income consumers gain 29 percent of their purchasing power from trade. Without access to affordable essentials, many Americans would struggle to get by.
“We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly… Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world?”
– Dr. King sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Christmas Eve, 1967
To be sure, trade liberalization was not something that Dr. King spent time preaching, even though trade can help advance some of his goals, from raising global prosperity to forging ties between nations. Dr. King’s message was even bigger. He clearly grasped, and often powerfully reminded his audiences, that the world was becoming increasingly interdependent.
Dr. King identified technology as a major driver. As he explained in another speech, “The geographical oneness of this age has come into being to a large extent through man’s scientific ingenuity. Man through his scientific genius has been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains.” An eloquent description of globalization, if ever there was one.
Moreover, Dr. King recognized there were challenges to confront. He often used the metaphor of a “world house” or a neighborhood to underscore the necessity of learning to live together. As he said, “Through our scientific genius we have made of this world a neighborhood…We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. This is the challenge of the hour.”
In many respects, that hour has not passed. In Dr. King’s time, the Internet, the personal computer, and other major advances had not yet arrived. The economic divide between the developed and developing world was even greater. The world continues to change, often faster and less comfortably than we’d prefer.
Our global neighborhood is exciting and terrifying. Greater choice and affordability has been driven by greater competition. For many Americans, without a more effective social safety net, this means greater purchasing power but less economic security. The same advances that put the world at our fingertips have also brought the world to our doorsteps.
How would Dr. King respond? Surely, he would caution against tribal retreats – withdrawing into one’s nationality, class, or another narrow identity. He sought to transcend those divisions and adopt a broader perspective. Even as he fought for equal rights in America, he did so with a global view. “To realize the American dream,” Dr. King urged, “we must cultivate this world perspective.”