Along with perms, mix tapes and denim jackets, the mid-1980s saw a rash of celebrity activism against hunger. From Band Aid to Live Aid, musicians around the globe lent their voices to raise money for famine-stricken Africa. After USA for Africa garnered $53 million with its 1985 supergroup hit “We Are The World,” the organization’s president, Ken Kragen, cast his charity attention homeward.
Kragen proposed an audacious plan—called a “stunt” by United Press International—to raise between $50 million and $100 million for hungry and homeless Americans by enlisting 6 million people to form a coast-to-coast human chain on May 25, 1986. The undertaking was so great that it required nine months and a staff of 400 to plan it.
Hoping to replicate the success of “We Are The World,” USA for Africa produced another charity power anthem to be played on radio stations across the United States to promote the event. Composed by New York jingle writers, “Hands Across America” was set to premiere during halftime of Super Bowl XX until Michael Jackson protested because he believed it upstaged “We Are The World,” which he co-wrote with Lionel Richie. Organizers pulled the song, and Americans who tuned in to watch the Chicago Bears maul the New England Patriots were instead treated to a commercial featuring Hands Across America celebrity co-chairs Bill Cosby and Lily Tomlin.
“Hands Across America” was eventually released, but unlike “We Are The World” it lacked any superstar recording artists—or any industry names at all outside of the group Toto, which provided instrumental tracks. A music video studded with celebrities from Barbra Streisand to “Star Wars” robot C3PO, the faces of adorable children and images of amber waves of grain ran for weeks on MTV.
Faced with expenses upwards of $16 million—liability insurance cost $3 million alone—USA for Africa recruited corporate sponsors such as Coca-Cola to defray the costs of staging the event. Once the 4,125-mile route through 16 states and Washington, D.C., was announced, organizers also faced unexpected protests from cities whose civic pride was wounded by being excluded from the event.
In spite of the road bumps, Hands Across America came off as planned at 3 p.m. Eastern on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. As hundreds of radio stations across the United States simultaneously played “Hands Across America,” nearly 5 million people joined hands along the planned event route. (Another one million people outside the official route participated in mini-versions such as “Hands Across Massachusetts.”)
The chain began in Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan where the Statue of Liberty and a fireboat pumping red, white and blue water provided the picturesque backdrop. First in line was six-year-old Amy Sherwood of Brooklyn, who had spent most of the prior year living with her family of seven in a welfare hotel populated by drug addicts and prostitutes. The line of people then stretched along the World Trade Center, over the George Washington Bridge and south through Philadelphia and Baltimore. Inside New Jersey’s Rahway State Prison, hundreds of inmates linked hands as did divers in Maryland under the surface of the Susquehanna River.
In Washington, D.C., the route ran by the U.S. Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, where it was joined by Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr., who had stood on the spot 23 years earlier to deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. It also passed inside the gates of the White House where President Ronald Reagan, dressed in a polo shirt and blue jeans, joined with First Lady Nancy Reagan and others on the steps of the North Portico. Not everyone, however, was happy with the participation of the president, whom political opponents blamed for not doing more to address the issue. “We resent him standing there grabbing hands like he’s part of the effort to eliminate homelessness and hunger,” social activist Mitch Snyder told ABC News. “He’s part of the problem.”
From the nation’s capital, Hands Across America moved westward. In Pittsburgh, nuns and Hell’s Angels clasped hands. Fifty Abraham Lincoln impersonators did the same in Springfield, Illinois, only to be topped by the 54 Elvis Presley lookalikes in Memphis.
The chain was not without its missing links—particularly through the searing deserts of the Southwest. In some places, ranchers filled the voids by placing their cattle hoof-to-hoof. Singer Robert Goulet was helicoptered to sparsely populated Vicksburg, Arizona, with the resident of a homeless shelter to bury a time capsule commemorating the event.
Celebrities were common sights along the entire route, but the stars truly came out for the event in Los Angeles. In Disneyland, Walt Disney Company president Frank Wells held aloft the gloved hand of Mickey Mouse in front of Cinderella’s Castle. In Beverly Hills, Richie joined fellow musician Little Richard who told news cameras, “We won’t be rude. We’re going to give every man some food.” The event’s exclamation point came at Long Beach, California, with the extravagant Queen Mary as the backdrop. As a bookend to Sherwood’s family of seven in New York, Bill and Mary Jones and their five children, who all lived in a homeless shelter, were the last people in the nationwide string of hands.
In all, the hand-holding lasted 15 minutes as participants sang “We Are The World,” “America the Beautiful,” and “Hands Across America.” Although all participants were asked to contribute $10-$35 if they wanted a commemorative T-shirt—not all did. One year after Hands Across America, the New York Times reported that after covering the staging costs, the event netted only $15 million for the hungry and homeless, less than organizers had hoped for.