Master Your 80s Trivia: Hands Across America

On May 25, 1986, Tom Selleck organized a line of Americans to stand hand-to-hand, connecting one ocean to another via their bodies. That event, however, paled in comparison to the Hands Across America event taking place on the mainland 48 states.

Selleck’s event was in Hawaii, a protest to let the organizers of the big event know that they’d snubbed the state of Hawaii.

Hands Across America may not have been flawless in its execution, but it was as much a part of the 80s zeitgeist as Ronald Reagan, The Space Shuttle, E.T., and that song, “We Are The World.”

USA for Africa

During the 80s, the United States was all about getting food to Africa. The USA for Africa organization was the group behind the “We Are the World” recording.

Inspired by the success of the 1984 Band Aid song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” a supergroup of musicians recorded a song written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie.

The proceeds from We Are the World and Hands Across America raised almost $100-million to fight famine in Africa.

Hands was the brainchild of Ken Kragen, a producer and music manager directly involved with We are the World. He wanted to duplicate the success of that song, to do more for the cause.

Hands Across America

In 1986, May 25 fell on a Sunday, Memorial weekend. Participants had to travel to one of the 16 states through which the hands would connect. It wasn’t quite the whole mainland, not even close.

While it may have been nice to connect all 50 states, organizers struggled to completely connect the 16 involved. Skipping Hawaii, however, was an oversight. They could have easily included our pacific island state.

As it was, organizers had to coordinate some 5-millions Americans in one moment. The chain of hands started in Manhattan, at Battery Park. It crossed the capital, of course, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, through the White House.

The states it crossed were Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and finally to California, where it routed through Disneyland, Beverly Hills, ending in Long Beach.

Star-studded Event

There were four celebrity co-chairmen for the event, Bill Cosby (yup), Kenny Rogers, Lily Tomlin, and Pete Rose.

Los Angeles bought the most celebrities to the line, including the president of Disney at the time, Frank Wells, but also Little Richard, and Lionel Richie to name a few.

In Washington D.C., Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial. President Reagan and his wife, Nancy were in line too, even though folks criticized Reagan as part of the problem.

Other celebs didn’t stand in line but donated, like Prince who gave them $13,500 in donation money.

Gaps Across America

Unless you count the 34 snubbed states, many of whom ran their own hands across the state events, there were some notable gaps in the chain.

The desert proved challenging, even in May. Organizers connected long sections connected with ribbon or rope. In Los Angeles, shady sections of town we void of hands.

Organizers tried to rally the troops last second, but they struggled to find takers. It didn’t help that one had to cough up $10 to stand in line.

All told, though, history records that the total participants, were they spread out properly, would have connected the coasts. In some areas they didn’t suffer gaps, they had too many people so they were stacked in rows.

The money collected from the even funded aid to Africa, but also to homeless in the United States.

Don’t forget, this was the ‘80s. We hadn’t yet trickled down, so not lending a hand at home would’ve been a massive oversight on the part of Kragen.

Had Hands become an annual event, it may not remain a symbol of the 80s, but that’s where it remains.