By Lynn R. Mitchell
Thirty years ago Hands Across America was an epic feat of achievement in an age that did not include social media or cell phones. By word of mouth, from helpful celebrities like Oprah Winfrey sharing on her show, and news blips, people heard and signed up.
We joined over six million other Americans on that warm Sunday afternoon in 1986 who linked hands from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific in a quest to make the world a better place and raise awareness of those in need. My husband, sisters, and I were there. Participants wore t-shirts with the logo and became part of the coast-to-coast party of awareness that was coordinated and choreographed by organizers (who had previously pulled together the “We Are The World” cause to battle famine in Africa) as we waited for that moment when we hooked up to the 4,000-mile human chain of hope.
Young, old, conservative, and liberal came together at 3pm Eastern Time, 2pm Central, 1pm Mountain, and 12:00 noon Pacific time, holding hands and singing along as the Hands Across America theme was played simultaneously on hundreds of radio stations across the nation.
President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan joined hands at the White House. My husband and I stood in front of Vice President George H.W. Bush’s residence on Massachusetts Avenue and clasped hands with hundreds along Embassy Row. Coretta Scott King was on the Washington Mall and nearby in the throng of participants stood former Bearing Drift contributor Mike Fletcher who wrote about it at his blog (see I’m in this picture). I just learned of two other political friends who were also part of the event in the D.C. area.
Both my sisters were in New Mexico. Lori had joined the line that extended through Albuquerque, driving 460 miles down from Colorado with friends and camping out for the weekend. Meanwhile, 175 miles to the east, Gail reported from Tucumcari and described in the Washington Post the efforts in sparse populations of the country to keep the Hands Across America chain unbroken:
“[Local event organizer Dana] Hendrickson runs back and forth along the line, herding people into every space. Tucumcari City Manager Hugh Riley holds one end of a strip of fabric, sent by a New Hampshire school, with children’s hands and names painted on it. He leans forward and peers at the gaps down the line.
“ ‘It looks like we won’t make it,’ he says wistfully. ‘That’s okay. At least we tried.’
“But his skepticism is premature. As the clock ticks down, Hendrickson runs down I-40 handing out pieces of red-and-white rope to bridge gaps. ‘Turn on your car radios so we can hear the songs,’ she hollers.”
Many famous and well-known people participated. The late singer Prince paid for the first mile of the Hands Across America route in New York City. Walter Payton, a Chicago Bear at the time, purchased a mile in Champaign, Illinois, and was then joined by 1,300 friends.
Supporters in line included former President Gerald Ford. Singer Frank Sinatra. John Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono. Hollywood and Star Wars guru Steven Spielberg. Actress Cicely Tyson. The View’s Whoopie Goldberg. The late actor Dudley Moore. The late comedian Robin Williams. Actresses Raquel Welch, Brooke Shields, and Donna Mills. Actors Peter Strauss, Michael J. Fox, Richard Dreyfuss, Ed Begley, Jr., Tony Danza, Scott Baio, and Ben Vereen. Full House actor John Stamos aka Uncle Jesse. All were well known and had popular movies and television shows in the 1980s.
In California, Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Goofy were joined by Star Wars robot C-3PO, and C-3PO’s buddy Chewbacca was part of the line in Ohio. Fifty Abraham Lincoln impersonators lined the route in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois, while 54 Elvis Presley impersonators joined hands in Memphis, Tennessee. In Little Rock, Arkansas, Governor Bill Clinton took part while others filled in elsewhere across the country including singers Liza Minelli, Michael Jackson, Kenny Loggins, Harry Belafonte, Dionne Warwick, Kenny Rogers, and Lee Greenwood.
The purpose of Hands Across America was to raise awareness of homelessness and hunger, and to raise money for both causes. Participants paid $10 each (many donated more) and received a t-shirt to wear during the event. More than $35 million was raised. Today we still battle homelessness and hunger. But for 15 minutes on that Sunday afternoon, all were part of something bigger than themselves, and many took that to heart, continuing to be involved and make a difference.