Hands Across America
As compassion flowed, our eyes turned inward and saw a problem at home that was too long ignored. It was a powerful sight to behold. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, over mountains, rivers and through deserts seven million Americans holding hands over 4,124 miles across America bringing attention to the plight of the nation’s hungry and homeless. People of all races, religions and political one moment, captured the world’s imagination by simply standing together, thousands of miles long, and saying we must care. There were new babies and people over 100 years old, prison inmates, the physically challenged and the physically gifted. And most importantly on that historic day — May 25, 1986 — included in that number were the very people for whom the public demonstration was designed to help — the hungry and homeless.
USA for Africa launched Hands Across America (HANDS) in October, 1985. Considered at that time to be the largest community participation effort in our nation’s history, HANDS was just impossible enough to be possible.
The dream quickly erupted into an unparalleled show of heartfelt concern. The event brought together millions of people to generate a national consensus that hunger and homelessness existed and that we must answer the call to help shelter and feed those in need. It was an impassioned outpouring in tandem with America’s response to the famine in Africa in 1985.
Coca-Cola USA became the founding sponsor of Hands Across America in October, 1985. Ultimately some 700 companies joined the movement and several thousand celebrities took the HANDS message across the nation.
Over 100 national organizations helped get the word out and urged their local affiliates to participate. National and local news organizations launched public service and community programs. Religious leaders preached the word while government and political leaders sought initiatives to resolve the tragedy of homelessness and hunger.
Students from kindergarten through college initiated projects to tackle the problem in their neighborhoods, and raise money and awareness. For many young people, both “We Are The World” and Hands Across America provided their first involvement with social issues.
Hands Across America and the millions who made it a reality, played a vital role in creating public awareness of hunger and homelessness which spawned a groundswell of mass public support for its resolution. Maybe most importantly, people continued to stay involved. A Gallup Poll, taken a year after Hands Across America, showed volunteer activities continuing to increase in the U.S.
Unfortunately, the struggle to feed and house the poor that these dedicated millions dared to confront continues to this day.
Confronting Hunger and Homelessness in the United States
Through the Eyes of Ken Kragen, Founding Chairman of United Support of Artists for Africa
“Hands Across America was clearly built on hope—a hope that the seeds we planted in the fall of 1985 would break through the ground, blossom, and bear fruit in the spring of 1986. The harvest certainly wasn’t an easy one. This book will give you a glimpse of what went on, but the work involved truly defies adequate description. Nothing like Hands Across America had ever been done before. There were many moments when we could have quit, thrown in the towel, but our hope, our belief in what we were doing, kept us going.
Ultimately, of course, Hands Across America was a smashing success. It planted new seeds of hope in millions of Americans, and delivered a message that the first step toward eliminating hunger and homelessness in this country is for each and every one of us to take responsibility.
Bobby Kennedy said it best back in the sixties: “I thought to myself, ‘Somebody should do something about that. Somebody should take some action.’ Then I realized, ‘I’m somebody.”‘ The objective of Hands Across America was to implant iii each of us the idea that “I’m somebody who can take action,” and that a power will be created that nothing can hold down.
As I stood in the Hands Across America line in New York’s Battery Park on May 25, it was difficult to believe this event, which months before had merely been a dream, was now a reality. When it was over, when millions of Americans had linked together for fifteen minutes of singing and sharing, I could barely take in what had just happened. All I knew was what I could see in front of me and behind me. Behind was the Statue of Liberty, boats full of people cheering and applauding, and a fireboat shooting plumes of red, white, and blue water into the air. In front of me were several hundred people, which was all I could see of the line before it turned a corner and snaked its way through Manhattan and then across the country.
It wasn’t until I returned to my hotel room with my wife, Cathy, to watch television coverage of the event, that I began to get a real feel for how enormous Hands Across America had been, and it was another two days before I fully realized that we had done something historic.
The full scope of what happened on May 25 is still sinking in, as I hear more and more about the feelings it created, its effect on people, and the subsequent activities that are being generated. One of my favorite stories from that day concerns the bus driver in New Jersey who was passing by the line when he saw a gap. He stopped his bus and made all of his passengers get off and join the line; but there were still a few empty feet, so he took off his belt and stretched it out to fill the remaining space. I also love the story about the person who was trying unsuccessfully to get through to a directory-assistance operator. Finally, after many delays, a voice came on and said, “Please hang on—we’re holding hands.”
Hands Across America was also a noteworthy technological achievement. Using computers, television and radio, satellites, “electronic mail,” and other state-of-the-art systems—many of which were donated—the project pioneered various communications techniques that will be used in the future for voter registration, political campaigns, fund-raising, direct marketing, and the like.
Most of all, Hands was defined by the people who took part. There were several marriages in the line, as well as baptisms and a bar mitzvah. There were the very young (a four-month-old baby) and the very old (a 103-year-old woman in Arkansas). There were prison inmates in New York State; there were the physically challenged and the physically gifted. There were people whom the event was designed to help, from the homeless on Skid Row in Los Angeles to Native Americans in the Southwestern desert. There were people of all races, all religions, all political persuasions, all sizes and abilities.
Hands Across America turned out to be a tribute to American ingenuity, a testament to an indomitable national will. In Havre de Grace, Maryland, a bridge over the Susquehanna River was considered unsafe for the line—so boaters, swimmers, and scuba divers connected in the water. The spirit of goodwill and good humor on that day, the overwhelming sense of unity, are something I’ll never forget.
I was also very glad to see that people staged their own Hands Across… events in places that were not on the official route. I have a friend in California who was driving through the middle of the state on Highway 101, listening to news of what was happening on the radio and bemoaning the fact that she hadn’t made the effort to get to Los Angeles and join the line. Lo and behold, right there on the highway, cars began stopping, and people got out and joined hands along the road. She said that there were more than 80 people in this impromptu line, singing along as their car radios blared the three songs—”We Are the World,” “America the Beautiful,” and the “Hands Across America” theme— played during the event.
There were Hands-related gatherings in virtually every state, and our estimates are that more than a million and a half people participated in these unofficial, off-the-line events. There were lines in Anchorage, Alaska; Kauai, Hawaii; Florida, Puerto Rico, even Guam and Germany.
Frankly, I had been worried that the media might bury us before we even had a chance to succeed. We were constantly asked about the number of people who had signed up, and when we gave them numbers that made it appear as if we would fall short of our goal, they began to report that we were failing. In fact, our own research indicated that as many as 60 percent of the participants would decide to join the line on the actual day. In the end, as national project director Fred Droz put it, “The event matched our predictions—and exceeded our expectations.”
Although vast distances (several entire states) were filled with hand-holding Americans, there were of course gaps in the line. But the physical link-up wasn’t the most important part. We made the one connection that really counted: the connection with the issues of hunger and homelessness in America. And the line connected in spirit; it made Americans feel good about themselves, and proud of themselves. It’s extraordinary that fifteen minutes of standing together, holding hands, and singing could be that emotionally uplifting, but it was.
As we prepared for May 25, I traveled to dozens of cities all across this country. I was very moved by the enthusiasm I saw—people really wanted to make it happen. From Fred Droz and Marty Rogol, USA for Africa’s executive director, to the Hands staff—whose job was roughly equivalent to coordinating several presidential campaigns at once—to the thousands of local volunteers, the quality of people involved was extraordinary. So were the efforts of our corporate sponsors, especially principal sponsors Coca-Cola and Citibank, and the scores of celebrities who lent their names and support. I’m proud of everyone who worked on Hands Across America, and my heartfelt thanks go out to them all.
I also want to take this opportunity to remember my late friend Harry Chapin, who was the direct inspiration for Hands Across America and so many other projects to end hunger. I thought of Harry as I stood in the line and wished he was there. Harry would have loved this event. As much as anyone, he would have understood how to mobilize it, how to galvanize people into further action. He also understood the issues; he had the verbal skills and the charisma, as well as the hard practical know-how, to pull it off. Harry Chapin embodied all the best qualities needed to realize our goals.
So Hands Across America was a success. But the truth is that even before the event took place, I felt we were beginning to accomplish a great deal of what we’d set out to do, at least at this stage of the effort. Far more significant than the money we have collected is the idea of making solutions to these problems a national priority again. I saw evidence that this was happening weeks before the event: Fortune magazine did a two-part series on hunger in America; an editorial appeared in the national cable television guide; a five-part hunger series ran on the CBS Morning News; and new legislation was introduced in Congress to address these issues. People are talking about and looking at the issue again. I think we’re starting to make ending hunger and homelessness a national imperative.
There have also been immediate results from the event itself. On May 26, grocers in Los Angeles donated several truckloads of food to eight local food banks; that food will in turn go to hundreds of charities. The same thing has been happening in St. Louis, Washington, and other cities.
I’ve seen results on a smaller scale, too. Outside an office in New York where I was doing some interviews, there was a man who obviously lives on the street. He didn’t look very healthy—although he wasn’t begging— and someone brought him a bag of groceries, while others were stopping to say hello or give him money. These aren’t long-term solutions, but at least they indicate that we aren’t simply ignoring these people, or passing them by. It’s a start.
I hope Hands Across America will help turn all of society in that direction. It may not be an answer in and of itself, but it can shape a direction. When you drop a pebble into a pond, you can, see the ripples spreading outward. To me, Hands is a boulder we’ve thrown into the water, and I hope there’ll be a tidal wave of activity as a result.
Three days after the event, I saw a news story about a boy in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who had organized his own Hands Across … line of a little over a mile, and collected $2,000 for the local food bank. If a child can take that kind of action, then certainly every adult can do something as well.
It’s time to let the pendulum swing away from mega-events like Hands and back toward individual and community action. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and go to work on the problem. Whether that work entails volunteering to help out at your local shelter or food bank, picking up a phone or a pen and communicating with your elected representative, or writing out a check to Hands Across America, everyone has to take some action.
My feeling is that no one who stood in that line, no one who is reading this book, no one who has even heard about Hands Across America—from the President of the United States to a shopkeeper in Denver, Indiana, to a bus driver in New Jersey or to a telephone operator in Los Angeles—is off the hook now that the event is over. We can’t simply point to the government and say, “Hunger in America is your fault.” It’s everyone’s fault. If government solutions are necessary, then it’s our fault for not insisting they be found. If there are things we can do as individuals or as corporations, then it’s our fault if we don’t do them.
It was on another May 25, a quarter of a century ago, that President John F. Kennedy vowed that we would put a man on the moon within ten years. And we did it, in 1969. It occurs to me that if this country could accomplish that remarkable feat in less than a decade, there is absolutely no reason we cannot eliminate hunger and homelessness here in a similar span of time. Hands Across America was the beginning of that effort —and if every one of us stays involved, there is no doubt that we can finish it.”