That Literally Happened!, a new show from BuzzFeed News on Facebook Watch, is revisiting some of the most memorable moments of yesteryear.
Today, the internet has revolutionized activism and organizing, connecting like-minded people at the push of a button on platforms like GoFundMe to fuel grassroots fundraising.
But 30 years ago, it was a different story.
Hands Across America was a national phenomenon in the 1980s. The event aimed to raise money to fight poverty and hunger by literally uniting millions of Americans in a single cause: forming a human chain spanning the continental United States.
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Ken Kragen, the creator of Hands Across America, told BuzzFeed News the idea was born out of an earlier project of his: the star-studded charity song “We Are The World.”
“What if we got millions of people holding hands from New York to LA in a continuous, nonstop line?” Kragen recalled a publicist working on “We Are The World” promotion asking him. “And I said, ‘Wow, I’m not laughing. That’s just impossible enough to be possible.’”
The campaign hoped to raise money to fight poverty by having participants pay $10 for their spot in the line and pushing T-shirts and other merchandise.
“We set out to raise money, and we thought we’d probably raise $50 to $100 million because that seemed like something we could achieve,” Kragen explained. “We didn’t get close to that figure with the money we raised.”
Just how much Hands Across America raised and donated is a bit hazy. Kragen tells BuzzFeed News that the campaign was able to donate $20 million. But according to the Washington Post and other publications, only $15 million was donated. Either way, it was well below what was initially anticipated.
The campaign also failed in the goal of stretching an unbroken human chain from coast to coast when the event finally took place on May 25, 1986. Breaks in the line were reported in Arkansas, as well as in large stretches of the desert in Arizona. Participants did their best to bridge gaps using buses, ribbons, and even livestock to extend the line.
According to Kragen, the chain stretched through 17 states with roughly 5.5 million participants. The spectacle even drew celebrity participation from Whoopi Goldberg to Jerry Seinfeld. Even former President Ronald Reagan took part, though his role was not without controversy.
Reagan initially declined to take part in Hands Across America, following highly publicized comments he made saying the hunger problem in America was caused by “a lack of knowledge on the part of the people as to what things are available.”
Reagan later agreed to participate, joining hands with the children of White House employees, saying any hesitation had been based on security concerns.
“Reagan joining the line, even though you could argue his presence was not welcomed by some — by many, really helped the overall event have that bipartisan deal and its success,” Kragen said.
While Hands Across America may not have reached its lofty goals, it did leave its mark on pop culture. The movement was featured prominently in Jordan Peele’s 2019 horror film, Us.
But could Hands Across America happen today? Kragen was skeptical, joking that participants would be too busy proving their participation with selfies to actually hold hands.
Still, the man behind Hands Across America sees a lot of hope in activism from the generations that came after the landmark ‘80s event.
“I love what kids are doing on climate change,” he said. “Greta Thunberg is amazing. I’ve watched everything she’s done.”
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