Meeting with the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations

Chicago, IL | February 6, 1976

And I truly believe that that destiny is in your hands, as much as it’s in mine, maybe more so – because, thank God, we still have a country where the fundamental fact is it’s based on consent of the governed.

Listen to the clip from the Meeting with the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations

Thank you to all of you for coming here today and listening to a speech – and I hope presenting me with some questions; and if somebody would like to make a speech in rebuttal or at least give me some ideas, I would be very grateful for any statements as well as questions that might be directed at me, because I’m one politician who comes equipped not only with a mouth, but with two ears. I like to hear, I like to listen, as well as talk. The truth is, I have learned a lot in this campaign. You’re supposed to learn from all the experiences you have in life, at least that’s what they used to teach me in school, but the reality is that there’s nothing that can teach you more than daily contact with the American people. One of the tragedies of our current political system is that once the President and Vice President get elected – and they are, after all, the only two people in our whole system elected by all the people – once they’re elected they never get to talk to anybody again, except so called experts: technocrats, bureaucrats, diplomats. They never get to talk, or listen, directly to the people. So I am listening to the people as well as talking. 

In this campaign, I’ll just give you one example, how listening can be a very moving experience. It’s not very much relevant, perhaps, to foreign policy, but I want to tell you something that happened to me just a couple of weeks ago in Mississippi. I was speaking in a town called Laurel to the Elks Club. It was an integrated meeting, and after the meeting was over, a Black woman came up to me and said she was very happy to be working for me in the campaign, and I thanked her, but particularly she said because I’d given her her first job. And I said I was happy to have done that, what was it? 

And she said, Well I became a driver in the Head Start program. I drove a car and picked up small children and drove them to the Head Start program for training. Pre-first grade. And you know, it caused a lot of trouble down here because in those days, for a woman to get a job was revolutionary enough, but for a Black woman to get a job, that was really controversial. And so I decided to do something with the money I made. 

And I said, What did you decide to do? 

And she said, Well I decided to go around and find elderly Black destitute people, men and women with no place to go, who were lonely and alone, and I decided to take them into my house and help them. 

And I asked, How did it work? 

And she said, Well, it was fine, I had about eighteen or twenty. 

I said, You had eighteen or twenty such people in your home? 

And she said, Yes. I said, Do you still do that? 

And she said Yes. 

I said, How many do you have now? 

And she said, I have about eighteen. 

I said, Let me understand again, are you telling me that you have eighteen destitute elderly Black men and women living in your home? 

She said, Yes. 

I said, Well how can you do that? 

And she said, That’s what I used the Head Start driver’s money for. 

I said, What do you mean?

 She said, Well, I took the money that was paid to me as a salary and built an addition on to my house. 

I said: Are people there now? 

She said Yes. 

I said: Where do you live? 

She said, Well I’m about five or ten minutes from here. 

I said, Could I visit your home? 

She said Sure. 

So I went over to her house. It was in what you might call the Black I suppose residential area of that town. Some of the houses were still on cinderblocks. And sure enough, there was her house, let’s say about twenty-five by twenty-five, or maybe a little bit larger than that, the front of it, and we went in and there were three rooms there for her husband, herself and her son and then through a door, we walked into addition, approximately the same size. Down the middle was a temporary sort of partition, and on one side, and on the other side, there were about ten beds, smack up against each other like this with a little tiny passageway between. And one side was the men’s and one side the women.

And I looked there, and my eyes popped out of my head, because sure enough there were somewhere between fifteen and twenty very elderly people. Some of them in bed. And so I started walking around among them, asking them questions, saying hello. I came to a bed, there’s a man lying flat on his back, looking straight up at the ceiling. Fabulous face. Very leathery. Obviously very old man. His eyes were somewhat sunken. I took him by the hand, it was obvious he was quite weak, and I leaned over and said, How are you feeling and he said, Well, I feel fine. 

To make conversation I said, How old are you? 

And he said, I’m not sure, because I don’t know when I was born or where. But they tell me I’m eighty-five. 

I said, What are you looking forward to? 

And he said, Well, truthfully, I’m just looking forward to dying. And going to the Lord.

I said in view of the difficulties he’d had in this life, he could look forward to a very happy life in heaven. 

And he said, Well he hadn’t had so many difficulties. He only regretted one thing. 

And I said What was that. 

And he said: That I’m blind. 

And suddenly I realized I was holding on to the hand of an eighty-five-year-old penniless, homeless, lonely old man, totally blind, who was being taken care of by this woman on the proceeds of a Head Start driver’s salary. And he was only one of a host of people she’d done the same thing for over ten years. 

That incident touched me deeply, because to me it illustrates the fantastic qualities that are so widespread among the American people; qualities of generosity and altruism, imagination, initiative, competence that are unrivaled by any people in the world. I say that now with some degree of confidence because I’ve been everywhere in the world, except China, and let’s say South Africa and Australia/New Zealand and I know not from somebody telling me about it but from personal experience the extraordinary qualities of intelligence and energy, imagination, initiative that are prevalent across this whole country of ours. It’s education, if you will, experiences like that which make me so confident that if once again our country can get the kind of direction – not dictation – but direction and leadership it deserves at the national level, that we have every bit as much chance of creating a country in the future here as great as what we had in the past and maybe – maybe it’s true – that we will have the best days ahead of us, rather than behind. 

And I truly believe that that destiny is in your hands, as much as it’s in mine, maybe more so – because, thank God, we still have a country where the fundamental fact is it’s based on consent of the governed. In most other countries in the world today, sad to say, instead of coming here today to ask for your support as a candidate, or for your consent, I would be busy in cahoots with somebody else or a group of people, lining up ten or fifty thousand people to rush down to Washington to shoot our way into the White House to grab the power and keep it for ourselves. There’s not very many nations left in the world where, literally, the power is in your hands. I have literally no more power than you do, I’m a candidate, a volunteer, but anybody in this room can be a volunteer. You’ve got just as much political power – and in 1976, the people have it all. Because in 1976, you can decide what direction this nation’s going to go in. And there’s very few human beings on the globe that have that power anymore. There’s four billion of us, you know, four billion human beings. And of the four billion, surely, surely the people in this room right here, are among the 1%, maybe half of one percent, of the most favored human beings on the Earth today. 

And so I say that this political campaign is important – sure it’s important to me, but it’s much more important to you. It’s important to you because you’ve got the power and the chance to exercise that power. To direct this country in one way or another. To direct it outward and upward, or to direct it inward and restrictionally, you might say. To allow our fears to take possession of us and to turn inward or to say Yes, the challenges are greater than ever!

Return to Search