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Hands Across America

The Event - 25 years ago
On Sunday, May 25, 1986, approximately 5.5 million people attempted to form a human chain from New York City to Los Angeles by holding hands.
The stated purpose of the event was to raise money for, and awareness of, the homeless in America.  But for this many people to participate in this unique event, there must have been many personal motivations, and many stories.  As for me, I was just curious whether it could be done, and whether enough Americans, with all their diversity, would support one issue and find common ground as one nation.  It amazes me that this unique event was so completely forgotten as soon as it was over, like a harmless earthquake or eclipse during which everyone shares in the exciting moment, but doesn't consider it worth mentioning more than a day afterward.  Out of the millions of people that took part in this event, I have only found a few people that have written about their experience on the Internet.
So, How Complete Was the Line?
Newspapers reported many anecdotes from that day, and gave overall estimates of the number of people that participated in each state, but the question on the minds of many people, then and now, remains unanswered:  "How close were we to completing a human chain across the country?"  Now, thanks to newspaper databases and Google Maps, we can attempt to visualize the answer.

Hands Across America route

This map (my work in progress) will attempt to show the route down to the street level, and the completeness of the chain, compiled from various sources.
  • Light blue: approximate route.
  • Medium blue: exact route.
  • White: unoccupied.
  • Light red: occupied "with gaps".
  • Medium red: unbroken chain.
  • Dark red:  crowd or line with multiple rows.
(If you can't see the map at right, then choose a web browser other than Internet Explorer, or click the link above and use Google Earth.)
If you participated in Hands Across America and you remember:
  • where you stood on that day (the street, and cross-streets at least within a few miles),
  • the route of the line through your town,
  • how complete/how long the human chain was, as far as you could see,
please send me an email and help me reconstruct a map of the line, one mile at a time.
My Own Experience
I volunteered to help put up signs along the route before the event, and was assigned to a group that went around downtown Los Angeles.  Several of us were driven around in a van, a few of us at a time were dropped off to walk and post signs, then picked up at the end of the block.  Most of the time, we didn't know exactly where we were, as the route meandered along major streets as it attempted to connect popular tourist sites, but I remember walking up and down adjacent parallel streets in Chinatown north of downtown, and on a bridge over the busy 110 Freeway which passes west of downtown.
That evening, when the television news showed the local Hands Across America planning office, I saw myself in the background for a couple of seconds -- the only time I've been on television.
Since I was an undergraduate student at UCLA at the time, I bought my $10 ticket at the UCLA Central Ticket Office on campus near Pauley Pavilion, and when asked in which block I wanted to reserve my spot, I chose half a block from the south entrance of UCLA on Westwood Blvd.
The day of the event, I waited in a bookstore for 12:00 noon to arrive, wondering if anyone would actually show up.  With five minutes to go, I left the store as hundreds of other people, exactly the number that was needed, magically emerged from the stores along the street.  The police had closed down the streets, occasionally letting a few cars at a time through the intersection at Le Conte Ave.  As if it had been rehearsed, everyone took their places in a continuous line down the west half of the street facing east.  The line extended south on Westwood Blvd. as far as I could see, and north to the entrance of the UCLA campus at Le Conte Ave. and turned left.  I didn't know and don't remember the people whose hands I held.  I had brought a portable radio, as about one in 10 people did, and tried to find the "official" station playing the song, which was difficult since I didn't know they were instructed to play other patriotic music for the first 10 minutes before the HAA theme that I knew.  There were several stations to choose from but since they were not playing the same song in synch, I didn't know how everyone was expected to sing together.  I put my radio on the ground in front of me, and asked our line organizer to find the right station for me, and she did her best to find one.
After everyone performed their fifteen-minute duty, the line broke up and everyone went on their way.  I had to drive to the San Fernando Valley for an appointment after the event, and along the way, I tried to explore the route of the line and how well it was populated, since the local route wasn't publicized in the newspaper.  Apparently, after going through downtown Los Angeles, the line divided into two lines, with the northern one going into the Valley and the southern one meandering across the northern L.A. basin (including a two-mile detour north to tag UCLA and turn back south again on parallel streets), then joined back together before taking advantage of the weekend crowds on the beaches all the way to Long Beach.  I took Sepulveda Blvd instead of the 405 Freeway to get to the Valley and found many happy families packing up their things and walking back to their cars.  I opened my window and shouted at the people, asking whether their line was complete, and all along the way they seemed to gesture back to me that it was.
The idea of forming a human chain long enough to be mapped on a globe, once it was proven to be possible, has become the ultimate sign of patriotism, unity and brotherhood.  Personally, I wish we could make it a national tradition on Fourth of July weekend in our larger parks, historic sites and along shorelines so it doesn't have to interrupt traffic.  Voluntary donations could be solicited from those in line, and some years would have more participation than others, but people that live far from the line could schedule it into their vacations.
Although the line all the way across the United States was not complete, it inspired several other demonstrations in other countries, in which human chains hundreds of miles long were completed.  See this map that I made that shows the route of some of them.
The 25th Anniversary
"Let's do it again for the 25th anniversary!"  I have seen this comment posted on Internet forums by several people who participated in the original event, as well as some who had not been born yet.  However, May 25, 2011 fell on a Wednesday, and only enough people showed up at 12:00 noon to form a line 3/100 of a mile long (according to their formula of persons per mile).
I was fortunate to attend USA for Africa's 25th anniversary commemoration in the Queen's Ballroom aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach (the western terminus of the line.) According to their announcement on their web site and on their Facebook page, all one had to do was send them an email, and the first 400 would get an invitation. It seems that most of those that attended worked for USA For Africa, had helped organize Hands Across America or belonged to other organizations that help the homeless.  It was hard to tell exactly how many of those present did not have one of these roles, but it seems only a handful of "Hands fans" took advantage of the email offer.
We stood around the room mingling and watching videos of the event before the speeches; Ken Kragen related how he first came up with the idea, and then a couple from New Jersey (celebrating their own 25th anniversary) told how they had walked from their synagogue to the Hands Across America line right after they were married.  
Then at 12:00 noon, we joined hands in a large circle around the room and sang We Are The World as the music video was shown; I found myself standing next to National HAA Project Chairman Fred Droz.  After the applause, we followed Kragen's lead and watched the Hands Across America music video without joining hands.
During the lunch that followed, people volunteered to tell their favorite anecdotes; it was very enlightening to hear firsthand how a megaproject such as Hands Across America was organized.  Ken Kragen (at right) recalled how Michael Jackson was initially very upset, thinking that Hands Across America would overshadow the aid to Africa from We Are The World, and also how protestors threatened to invade the White House grounds where the line came in, so Kragen formed a line of young children so the protestors would not dare break through them.
The celebrity coordinator was proud they were able to get 1,100 celebrities to endorse the project.  She remembered transporting busloads of people to form a chain through the fields near Bakersfield, and getting the cooperation of cast members on the set of Saturday Night Live, to film the music video.
Executive Director Marty Rogol recalled that every time the project team flew across the country, they never chose window seats so that they wouldn't feel overwhelmed by the scale of their project; he quipped that he followed this advice until one time he got a window seat, looked down, and regretted doing so. (Now that the project is over, I hope he'll appreciate looking down at my map in satellite view after it's filled in.)
The organizer of the 25th anniversary event, Larry Weinberg, knew my name -- he came up to me and said he had been talking about my map of the route with Marty Rogol (at right), and introduced me to him.  I took the opportunity to ask Rogol how they came up with the figure of 5 million participants, and what being a "participant" meant.  (I had always assumed that local line coordinators had counted or estimated the attendance of their own segments and reported up the hierarchy to get the total.) Rogol explained that it was actually the number of individual tickets sold -- they didn't take cash and didn't include corporate donations in the number of participants.  However, two days before the event, they had announced that participants didn't need a ticket to join the line. Crowds of people had joined in without a ticket, and truck drivers threw cash out their windows at the people in line, making the record keeping more difficult if not impossible.  He suggested I contact the chair of USA For Africa, Marcia Thomas, for details about the exact route and number of participants to help with my map, which I did.
And so, the legacy and memory of this event continues.
Hands Across America : the Official Record Book : the People, the Places, the Pictures, the Story of the Historic Nationwide Event.  New York, N.Y. : Pocket Books, 1986.
This page was updated June 25, 2011 by Greg Ullman
Shortened URL for this page:  http://bit.ly/mDdcFp
Shortened URL for Hands Across America Google map:  http://bit.ly/kEcKCr