On Sunday 25 May 1986, Americans were asked to simultaneously hold hands across a 4,137-mile route stretching from California’s Santa Monica Pier to New York’s Battery Park in an effort to raise from $50 million to $100 million for the nation’s hungry and homeless.
The vision was for 6 million to 10 million Americans to form a continuous human chain from sea to sea.
“The Line”, as it was known, was a simple concept, masterminded by Ken Kragen, manager to the stars and president of USA For Africa.
The line ran through New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, as well as the District of Columbia.
Logistical realities dashed the dreams of a continuous human link up with gaps appearing in Califonia, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. “Planned” gaps were spanned symbolically with red-and-white rope, hot air balloons or banners.
Couples got married in the line in Baltimore, New York, Phoenix, and in Memphis on the Mississippi River Bridge; 100 scuba divers held hands underwater to keep the chain intact across the Susquehanna River; and in Washington, President Reagan and the First Lady held the hands of children of White House staffers.
The event drew 5.5 million participants, but most stood in line for free instead of paying even the minimum $10 donation. Accordingly, the extravaganza succeeded in raising awareness, expectations and hope, but only a fraction of the money that organisers believed they would receive.
After paying approximately $16 million in expenses, the organisation had only about $11 million left over to give to the nation’s poor.
Unfortunately, Sport Aid – Bob Geldof‘s sequel to the successful 1985 Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia – took place on the same day, dwarfing Hands Across America in scope, purpose, money earned, participation and global audience, taking place in 89 countries simultaneously with worldwide media coverage.