Looking Back to 1986: Hands Across America

“Hands across America, hands across this land I love….”

My Mom sent me a text message Saturday morning asking if I remembered what we did 27 years ago: Now I cannot remember what I had for dinner two nights ago, so you know the answer. Mom reminded me: On May 25 in 1986 we were part of a historic event known as “Hands Across America.”

Many of our youth and young adults have never heard of this event. It all started with the 1985 celebrity-collaboration of USA For Africa’s “We are the World” written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, which raised $50 million for those suffering famine in Ethiopia. Hollywood promoter-organizer Ken Kragen was asked repeatedly about a follow-up charity event to raise money and awareness for those suffering from hunger and homelessness in our own nation. The result was “Hands Across America.”

Their dream was to form a chain of people linked hand in hand, arm in arm for fifteen minutes across a 4,152-mile stretch through seventeen states of our great country from Long Beach, California to Battery Park, New York City at 3 p.m. Eastern time on May 25. A donation of ten dollars bought your official spot in this this historic line-up with the funds going to local charities to fight homelessness and poverty.

Celebrity spokespersons for “Hands Across America” were Bill Cosby, Kenny Rogers, Lily Tomlin, and Pete Rose. They kicked off promotional advertising by running a commercial during Super Bowl XX which featured the theme song by the same name. Following the success of “We are the World,” they made use of numerous celebrities and the 80s band Toto in the song and the commercial.

After months of promotion on TV, in newspapers, and through community organizers, “Hands Across America” became a reality that May 25. Looking back, I recall rushing home from John Carroll’s  Baccalaureate and Graduation Exercises for our Class of 1986 to pick up my eighteen-month old daughter Meighan and my Mom. I was expecting Joseph at the time. We braved the heat and humid air of the day as we gathered with thousands of Harford Countians on Route 40 near the McDonald’s at Route 24 in Edgewood. Local representatives worked to get the crowd organized and in position for the 3 p.m. kick-off. At that time radio stations around the nation played the “Hands Across America” theme song with participants singing along, followed by “America the Beautiful” and “We are the World.”


Later news coverage showed that we were joined across the country by people in all walks of life. Notables included: 

  • President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy were joined by Rev. Billy Graham, Coretta Scott King, and staffers linking hands across the White House lawn;


  • Our good Sisters in Pittsburgh held hands with members of the Hell’s Angels;


  • In Pittsburgh’s Three River Stadium, hundreds of Little Leaguers joined Pete Rose and his Cincinnati Red teammates who were in town for a game that afternoon, holding hands with the major league players as the line crossed their grandstand;


  • Up in Havre de Grace past Route 40 from where we stood, scuba divers forded a line across the Susquehanna River;


  • There were stories of ranchers in New Mexico who positioned their cattle to fill in gaps in the line;


  • Migrant workers in Texas lined a 51-mile stretch;  


  • And in New Mexico, Hopi and Navajo tribesmen joined in the line.


http://www.usaforafrica.org/Hands_Across_America/kenkragen.html )

This huge extravaganza raised at least $20 million for local soup kitchens and shelters throughout our nation. Some detractors at the time criticized their efforts and the high expenses of promotion and staffing. They pointed out that there were gaps in the line in some towns across the country. Looking back, I imagine that an event like this would have benefitted highly from our current use of the Internet and social media for promotions and increasing involvement. But they did what they could at the time to make their elaborate plan come to fruition. And they raised millions of dollars in the process.

The public consciousness to the plight of the homeless and hungry was invaluable. Efforts to help those in need are always in order. Our Holy Father Pope Francis has asked us since his election to not forget the poor. Through the efforts of USA for Africa 27 years ago, “Hands Across America” did important work in promoting the dignity of our brothers and sisters who are less fortunate. May we always be inspired to support the work of Catholic Charities and other service organizations with our time, talent, and treasure.

“Whatsoever you do to least of My people that you do unto Me…”

Check out the video for “Hands Across America” which first aired during Super Bowl XX.

The song might sound cheesy, but the efforts resulted in raising funds and awareness for those in need. You just might want to sing along….


LYRICS: “Hands Across America”

Hands Across America,
 Hands Across the land I love.
 United we fall,
 United we stand,
 Hands Across America.
 Mother and Father,
 Daughter and Son,
 Learn to live as one.
 I cannot stop thinking again and again
 How the heart of a stranger
 Beats the same as a friend.
 Learn to love each other:
 See these people over there?
 They are my brother and sister.
 When they laugh, I laugh;
 When they cry, I cry.
 When they need I’ll be there by their side.
 We are the river of hope
 That runs through the valley of fear.
 And there is a lady whose smile shines upon us
 Saying all is welcome here.
 Learn to love each other:
 See the man over there?
 He’s my brother.
 When he laughs, I laugh;
 When he cries, I cry.
 When he needs me,
 I’ll be right there, right by his side.
 The kiss never felt so sincere,
 Full of countless dreams,
 This earth, it never smelt so sweet,
 Cradles a song in its great heartbeat.
 Learn to love each other:
 See the man over there?
 He’s my brother.
 When he laughs, I laugh;
 When he cries, I cry.
 When he needs me,
 I’ll be right there by his side.

Catholic Review

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