May 25th marks 30 years since more than five million people came together to form a human chain that stretched across the country, from New York to Los Angeles. Hands Across America, which raised $34 million to fight hunger and homelessness, was a massive feat to pull off – made all the more impressive when you consider the event was organized in 1986.
“We did Hands Across America without the benefit of the Internet, without cell phones,” says Ken Kragen, the mastermind behind the event. “That’s one of the most amazing things about that, 30 years ago, that we could pull of this unbelievable event with five-and-a-half million people holding hands from one end of America to the other end.”
The droves of celebrities who came out (ranging from President Ronald Reagan to Brooke Shields to Kenny Rogers) may have gotten the most media attention, but Kragen was amazed by the stories of real people who supported the event.
“People actually got married in this line,” he says. “There was a bus driver driving along and he saw a gap in the line and he stopped the bus and made everybody get off the bus and get in the line. We had people in kayaks going across a lake.
Though the chain certainly had gaps in its 4,000 mile stretch, what Kragen remembers most is how it brought people together. “The story we heard back over and over was that people appeared like the cavalry over the hill at the last minute to fill the line. They sat there nervously in the hours before, and the last five or ten minutes, people appeared out of everywhere to fill the line,” he recalls. “It was quite amazing.”
Kragen says he hopes the anniversary this week revives a much-needed discussion.
“Our big hope is to use the 30th anniversary of Hands Across America to call attention to the fact that these problems are totally, totally with us today,” he says. “I think at the time it had considerable effect and I think it did a lot of good, improved a lot of lives, maybe saved lives here. Unfortunately, it’s sort of gone away.”
Just as he did in 1986, Kragen is still trying to raise awareness. “We have 50 million people going to bed hungry at night; 17 million of those are children. Those are just unbelievable figures in the richest country in the world and they’re ones that need to be dealt with.”