On May 25, 1986, 5-1/2 million people joined hands in a 4,124-mile-long line from New York to Los Angeles. For fifteen minutes they held hands and sang "Hands Across America" in Hands Across America, an event to raise money for America's poor and homeless.
The event was the brainchild of Ken Kragen, founder of USA For Africa, and a New York public relations executive named Geoff Nightingale. After its conception in April of 1985, the Hands project faced the problem of overcoming the mistakes of a similar event a decade earlier.
In that instance, a Chicago group had attempted to form a human chain across America as part of the 1976 Bicentennial celebration. The event was all voluntary, even to the point of being organized by volunteers. It failed completely and never took place.
For Hands Across America, it was decided that corporate sponsorship was the way to go. With big-time corporate funding from corporations such as Citibank, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Safeway; Hands Across America was able to finance a publicity blitz and an enormous organization to pull off the event. Video feeds and coverage were donated by ESPN and MTV.
To actually raise the money for the poor and homeless, people were asked to donate at least $10 each to stand in the line, and corporations could sponsor lengths of the line at $15,000 to $50,000 per mile. Corporate sponsors would be responsible for organizing their sections of the line, and could sell t-shirts and memorabilia throughout their areas. In all, 5,442,960 people and several hundred corporations signed up. (In addition, an estimated 1,500,000 people who didn't or couldn't participate formed their own separate lines.)
Because of the massive scale of the project, the line was broken into about 200 mini-lines, each 20 miles long. Each mini line had its own organizers, who worked in conjuction with each other to connect the 200 separate lines into the massive coast-to-coast line.
In many places it appeared that the line would not succeed, attendence was sparse at first, but in the final minutes the real flood of participants began to pour in, filling in many of the gaps. Not all were filled, however. There were several gaps ranging in size from one to several miles, especially in the desert regions. Some of these gaps remained empty, others were filled with balloons and ribbons to stand in for people.
It is not known exactly how much money was raised by Hands Across America, but the event brought together people of all races, creeds, and religions for a 15-minute period of harmony.