Viewers of the new Jordan Peele thriller Us may walk out curious about the daisy-chain of humanity depicted in the film and whether it had any basis in reality. It does: Hands Across America was a nationwide effort to raise awareness (and money) for the plight of the hungry and homeless in America. The event took place on May 25, 1986 and involved nearly 5 million people across 16 states and Washington, D.C. joining hands for 15 minutes in a sign of solidarity. While promotional expenses ate into some of the profits, the stunt helped raise an estimated $15 million for charitable causes.
For more on this audacious '80s moment that featured Oprah Winfrey, Mickey Mouse, and Michael J. Fox, check out our round-up of facts and trivia. (Just don’t expect it to be as creepy as Peele’s interpretation.)
Hands Across America wasn’t the first time someone had tried to get people to join hands across the country.
Hands Across America was the brainchild of advertising executive Geoffrey Nightingale, who had worked with USA for Africa founder and music promoter Ken Kragen on “We Are the World,” the star-studded 1985 single that raised money for the starving citizens of Ethiopia. During a New York City Ballet rendition of “We Are the World,” Nightingale told Kragen it might be a good idea to try and get people to join hands across state lines as a way to raise awareness for domestic hunger issues.
Kragen ran with the idea, but it wasn’t the first time it had been attempted. Back in 1976, a man named Marvin J. Rosenblum tried a similar event with the same name, but a lack of corporate sponsorship led to a weak turnout. (There was just one 10-mile line that formed outside of Chicago.) Rosenblum’s trademark on Hands Across America lapsed in 1977. Kragen maintained he hadn’t heard of the prior project until he had already started working on his own.
There were protests against Hands Across America.
You wouldn’t imagine people having a problem with a charitable effort, but Hands Across America faced controversy early on for mapping out a route that began in New York City's Battery Park and ended up in Long Beach, California. States and cities that weren’t included in the route snaking through Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Kentucky, and Arizona, among others, objected to being left out. Senator Ted Kennedy voiced his disapproval that the link wouldn’t be running through New England.
Prince sponsored a line.
In order to successfully mount Hands Across America, Kragen looked to corporate America for underwriting. His first—and biggest—sponsor was Coca-Cola. The second was Citibank. Together, the two companies contributed an estimated $8 million to the effort. It was even advertised on McDonald’s placemats. But other sponsors could chip in for the registration fees that cost between $10 and $35 per person. Musician Prince bought a mile for $13,200. Together, sponsors and corporations accounted for roughly 2000 miles of the 4125-mile chain.
There were a lot of gaps that had to be filled.
When Hands Across America launched at 3 p.m. eastern time on Sunday, May 25, 1986, the Associated Press estimated that approximately 4,924,000 people would be participating based on counts gathered from local community organizers. While concentrations were heavy in some states like New York and New Jersey, others found themselves short. Indiana needed 400,000 people, but just 250,000 showed up. In Sanders, Arizona, 109 people stood in a section that needed 1320 to appear complete. When there was a gap in the line, organizers filled it with ribbons, ropes, banners, or even cattle. When a bus driver in New Jersey saw a break in the line, he pulled over and asked his passengers to complete the connection.
Prisoners participated in Hands Across America.
With a presence in 550 cities, Hands Across America made for some strange bedfellows. Major League Baseball players gathered for a game in Cincinnati, Ohio and held hands with Little Leaguers; nuns and Hell’s Angels members stood side-by-side in Pittsburgh. At Rahway State Prison in Rahway, New Jersey, inmates formed a line.
There were weddings during Hands Across America.
Although Hands Across America was expected to last just 15 minutes, a number of people took the opportunity to use the gatherings as a springboard for other activities. A total of five marriages were reported to have been completed during the event, as well as baptisms and at least one bar mitzvah.
Ronald Reagan was criticized for getting involved in Hands Across America.
President Ronald Reagan joined Hands Across America on the front lawn of the White House alongside his wife Nancy, the Reverend Billy Graham, and Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton. But Reagan was the subject of protests in Detroit’s Lafayette Park and was criticized for even being involved, as his critics believed he had done little to combat the hunger epidemic in America. The previous week, Reagan had cited a "lack of knowledge" among the poor about charitable resources as a reason they did not have access to food. The comment raised eyebrows. Reagan, however, denied his participation had anything to do with the backlash.
Some people stiffed the event out of money.
Kragen had voiced hope that Hands Across America might be able to raise $50 or even $100 million in charitable donations. An estimate released a year after the event put the total number of donations at $24.5 million, with $9.5 million going to costs and $15 million to charities. In order to fill out the expected gaps in lines, USA for Africa had invited people to come join the group without registering or paying the $10 to $35 donation. Additionally, thousands of people showed up for the event who had pledged to donate but never did. An August 1986 story in The New York Times estimated the lost earnings to be between $7 and $8 million.