On May 25, 1986, over 5 million Americans linked hands to make a 4,125-mile human chain that stretched from New York City to Long Beach. They weren’t just big hand holding enthusiasts, though. They were participating in Hands Across America, a massive charity event and fundraiser that hoped to raise money for and draw attention to homelessness and hunger.
In the nearly 25 years since Hands was a national phenomenon, it has slowly faded in our memories. Let’s take a look at the story behind the big event.
Hands Across America was the brainchild of music promoter and charity activist Ken Kragen, who had previously played a lead role in putting together USA for Africa’s 1985 charity single “We Are the World.” Following the success of that project, Kragen trained his sights on the more ambitious task of forming a human chain across the country to raise money for charity. Kragen and his team billed Hands as “the largest participatory event in the history of the world.”
Coca-Cola kicked in $8 million to get the project rolling, but an event like this really needed celebrities. Hands assembled a real murderers’ row of stars. The event had four celebrity co-chairmen: Bill Cosby, Kenny Rogers, Lily Tomlin, and Pete Rose. (Rose and his Cincinnati Reds teammates joined hands with Little Leaguers at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium during a road trip.)
What better place to grab the national consciousness than a Super Bowl commercial? That January, Hands made its first big splash when it ran an ad featuring its theme song during Super Bowl XX. The ad drummed up some nice publicity for Hands Across America, but it couldn’t compare to what followed: a star-studded music video featuring the event’s amazingly cheesy theme song. (Since this was 1986, of course the song’s backing band was Toto.)
Despite the terrific production values of this video, at least one celebrity was hesitant to participate. Just a week before the event President Ronald Reagan said, “I don't believe that there is anyone going hungry in America by reason of denial or lack of ability to feed them; it is by people not knowing where or how to get this help." In other words, if anyone was hungry it was his or her own fault. Reagan eventually softened his stance just two days before Hands Across America and took a spot in the chain on the White House lawn.
Other celebrities came out in droves, too. Prince kicked in a $13,200 donation. Jet reported that NBA greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Alex English joined with Olympic track star Edwin Moses to form a sports committee. Whoopi Goldberg, Harry Belafonte, Brooke Shields and Dionne Warwick joined in on the handholding.
Even with this Hollywood glitz, the whole “across America” claim was a little dubious. The participants couldn’t fully stretch from sea to shining sea given Hands’ circuitous route, so long ribbons or lengths of rope had to stand in for actual people for up to a hundred miles in areas like deserts. The Los Angeles Times reported that there were huge gaps in the line in some of the dodgier sections of East LA, and volunteers’ efforts to recruit people from their front porches to join the chain didn’t generate any interest.
What do you do with millions of people once they’ve linked hands? Why not have them belt out a few tunes? The chain stayed together for 15 minutes, long enough for participants to sing “We Are the World,” “America the Beautiful” and, naturally, the Hands theme song.
A human chain is nice and all, but how does it raise any money to feed the hungry? Participants weren’t just being asked to come out and hold hands. They were also supposed to cough up a donation of at least $10 apiece to join the chain. Between those donations and corporate sponsorships from companies like Citibank and American Express, Hands seemed poise to raise quite a bit of cash; the project’s coordinators wanted to gross $50 million that could then be dispersed to local causes through grants.
However, as anyone who’s ever tried to form a human chain across a continent can tell you, it’s no small task. As Hands’ national director told Time in an understated interview before the event, “It's like planning the invasion of Normandy and Hannibal's crossing of the Alps on the same day.” The organizers used a pair of giant computers located in Marshfield, WI, to manage the event and assign participants a place to stand.
Planning and promoting Hands required nine months and a staff of 400 people, which took a huge bite out of the event’s bottom line. On top of that, people were excited to hold hands but less enthusiastic about mailing in their donations. Hands only pulled in around $34 million total, and once the event spent around $17 million to pay its bills it only netted $15-16 million. Robert Hayes of the National Coalition for the Homeless told the New York Times that the event’s organizers “spent too much to raise too little and promoted a national extravaganza empty of content.''
At least one homeless family got a huge benefit from the events. Six-year-old Amy Sherwood had been living in a New York homeless shelter when she was picked to be in the Hands promotional video. Hollywood talent scouts decided the girl showed promise and inked her to an acting contract. Little Amy still took her symbolic place as the first link in the chain where Hands began in New York’s Battery Park even though she and her family had moved into a Brooklyn apartment.
Despite critics’ jabs that the event was more of a spectacle than a fundraiser, it would be shortsighted to just look at the raw numbers on how much Hands collected. The promoters pointed out that the event helped raise the profile of the homeless in the public consciousness, which likely led to more volunteering and donations to related causes. If the event really did raise awareness, then it’s easy to see why its organizers deemed it a success. And if it didn’t? At least it left a really odd blip on our cultural memory.