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Hands Across America was a benefit event and publicity campaign staged on Sunday, May 25, 1986 in which approximately 6.5 million people held hands in a human chain for fifteen minutes along a path across the continental United States. Many participants donated ten dollars to reserve their place in line; the proceeds were donated to local charities to fight hunger and homelessness and help those in poverty.
In order to allow the maximum number of people to participate, the path linked major cities and meandered back and forth within the cities. Just as there were sections where the `line' was six to ten people deep, there were also undoubtedly many breaks in the chain. Enough people participated however that if an average of all the participants had been taken as if spread evenly along the route standing four feet (1.2 m) apart, an unbroken chain across the 48 contiguous states would have been able to be formed.
The event was conceived and organized by Ken Kragen. Event implementation was through USA for Africa under the direction of Marty Rogol, the founding Executive Director. A theme song, titled "Hands Across America," was played simultaneously on hundreds of radio stations at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time (noon Pacific time). The song was written by Marc Blatte and John Carney (the Spanish version was written by the composer Marcia Bell), and featured lead vocals by session singers Joe Cerisano and Sandy Farina, and the band Toto. The song peaked at #65 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1986.
Hands Across America was a project of USA for Africa. USA for Africa produced "We Are The World" and the combined revenues raised by both events raised almost $100 million to fight famine in Africa and hunger and homelessness in the United States.
The date and time chosen for the event inadvertently conflicted with another charity fundraiser, Sport Aid, which was organized by USA for Africa on the same day. Since Hands Across America was much better publicized in the United States, only 4000 runners participated in New York City for Sport Aid.
Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. Edward Markey led an official protest over every New England state being excluded from Hands Across America. Political leaders in the South additionally weighed in against the route that was chosen to span the continental United States. Various protests broke out in the Upper Midwest, notably Minneapolis and Milwaukee, as well as northwestern cities such as Portland and Seattle. In Hawaii actor Tom Selleck and Sen. Daniel Inouye led a counter Hands Across Hawaii program that was held to remind mainlanders that "Hawaiians are Americans, Too!"
In popular culture
In The Simpsons episode "Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?" Homer is seen watching the event on television, sitting on his couch as Marge, Lisa, Bart, the Flanders family, and other characters are holding hands through his living room. An unknown television announcer is heard reporting that "except for huge gaps in the Western states, Hands Across America was a complete success!"
In "American History X," the racist character of Derek Vinyard, played by Edward Norton, in the midst of a heated debate with his mother and her boyfriend about the recent Rodney King riots, argues that after King's initial arrest, public attitudes amounted to "hands across America" for King, a reference to what he perceives as undeserved public sympathy for his plight.
On July 21, 2004's episode of the Late Show with David Letterman, rapper P. Diddy presented a Top Ten list titled "Top Ten Ways I, P. Diddy, Am Getting People to Vote." The number three entry mocked the event, stating, "Remember 'Hands Across America'? Yeah, well we ain't doin' that."
The music video for "Something to Believe In" by The Ramones features a parody event entitled "Hands Across Your Face."
The film Beerfest makes numerous references to Hands Across America
The film North references the event when the governor of Hawaii complains about waiting for people to show up.