On the afternoon of Sunday, May 25, 1986, more than five million people joined hands to form a line that stretched 4,152 miles -- from New York City's Battery Park to a pier in Long Beach, California. This much-hyped mega-event, called Hands Across America, was intended to raise money to fight hunger and homelessness. From New York, where 200,000 people participated, the line crossed the East River by means of the George Washington Bridge. Passing through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, it dipped down to the nation's capital and across the White House grounds before extending to Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis and Dallas. Continuing across the desert Southwest, through Albuquerque and Phoenix, it came to an end at Long Beach, having crossed sixteen states in all. For fifteen minutes, beginning at 3 p.m. EST, participants joined hands and sang "We Are The World," "America the Beautiful," and the Hands Across America theme. Among those who took part: Jazzercisers, Hell's Angels, disabled teenagers and nursing home residents, Hopi and Navajo Indians, 500 Little Leaguers at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, numerous celebrities, and President Ronald Reagan.
Inevitably there were gaps in the human chain, gaps filled with miles of red and blue ribbon and sometimes in more innovative ways -- west of Albuquerque, sailboats and catamarans were lined up bow to stern, while trained seals and killer whales did their part at Cleveland's Sea World. At first President Reagan was not going to participate in the event. His aides had decided to exclude him for security reasons. But daughter Maureen persuaded Reagan to overrule his handlers. "You've always talked about solving our problems through community commitment," Maureen told her father. "You're a community activist person. This is the ultimate example of that. You have to be there." White House staff and their families joined the president that Sunday afternoon as the Hands Across America line curled in one of the north gates and out the other.
Indeed, Reagan made much of American voluntarism during his presidency, claiming that the tradition of volunteer service had been "revitalized" during the 1980s. He pointed out that in 1985 corporations and individuals had donated $80 million to charitable causes, up by 8 percent from the previous year, while 89 million Americans (23 percent of the population, or twice as many as in 1980) were engaged in some kind of volunteer work. Some argued that the lower tax rates pushed through by the Reaganites in 1981 encouraged more giving. Others claimed that cutbacks in spending for social programs prompted the increase in private charity. The answer was a combination of these factors, and the advent of high profile charity events such as Live Aid and Farm Aid.
Critics worried that such mega-events lulled Americans into believing that a single extravaganza like Hands Across America would solve the problem it was designed to address. Concern about "donor fatigue" worried organizers. As one megathon followed another, public enthusiasm seemed to wane. Hands Across America hoped to raise $50 to $100 million by charging participants $10 to $35 apiece. But by Memorial Day weekend only $20 million had been raised and organizers were offering to let people join the transcontinental human chain free of charge. Held on the same day, Bob Geldof's Sport Aid involved 20 million people in 266 cities worldwide, but interest in Sport Aid was lackluster in the United States. As the Eighties wore on the annual Farm Aid concerts drew smaller and smaller crowds.
There was criticism, too, of the way corporations used charity events as marketing tools. Coca-Cola donated $5 million to Hands Across America, while Citibank doled out $3 million. "We're out for exposure," was the blunt admission of one Coca-Cola executive. In all, corporate patronage to the tune of $30 million made Hands Across America possible. That way, all or most of the revenues derived from the event could be channeled directly into aid for the needy. Reebok spent $8 million to finance Amnesty International's "Human Rights Now!" tour in return for mention in tour advertisements. Though purists balked, most consumers were untroubled by the thought that corporate sponsors might profit from their involvement in charity events.
Another reason for the public's waning interest in such events were allegations that, in some cases, the funds raised for aid were not benefiting the intended recipients. The most egregious example of misappropriation of famine aid occurred in Ethiopia. Dr. Rony Brauman, a French physician and director of the nonprofit humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders, revealed that Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam was seizing Western-donated food and money and using it to destroy opposition to his rule, luring civilians in the rebellious regions into resettlement centers and labor camps by uising the desperately needed aid as bait. According to Dr. Brauman, the Soviet-backed Ethiopian military pursued a scorched earth policy in the rebel provinces, which only worsened the effects of the famine. The civilians were forced to choose between starvation and resettlement. Without crops or livestock they became dependent on the Marxist government's largesse. In the most shocking revelation of all, Dr. Brauman told of government officials preventing the distribution of food in order to reduce the population in one outlying district; as a result, 3,000 children starved.
Apart from the question of whether such mega-events as Hands Across America were the best way to raise funds for the relief of the homeless and the hungry at home and abroad, there can be little doubt that they were cultural phenomena unique in their scope and extravagance to the Eighties. Cynics decried their celebratory nature, charging that a festival atmosphere was inappropriate considering the tragic circumstances of the starving children and suffering street people for whom the charity was meant. But proponents of the mega-events dismissed such criticisms as sour grapes. The problems were so large, the need so great and immediate, that big productions like Hands Across America were necessary to grab the public's attention and induce them to give. And if the public had a little fun or entertainment in the process, what was wrong with that?
Conceived by Bob Geldof, lead singer of the Boomtown Rats, 1985's Live Aid consisted of two rock concerts, one in Philadelphia's John F. Kennedy Stadium and the other in London's Wembley Stadium. These were broadcast, using twelve satellites, to more than a billion people worldwide. Pledge calls were received by Live Aid telethons in 30 countries, and total revenues approached $100 million. These funds were used by various international agencies to battle famine in Africa. Billed as the biggest rock concert ever, the 16-hour marathon included performances by Bob Dylan, Phil Collins, Mick Jagger, Sting, Bono, Elvis Costello, Tina Turner and Lionel Ritchie. (The previous year, USA for Africa had sponsored the multi-artist recording of "We Are The World," which sold over 16 million copies and raised in excess of $50 million.)
Newsweek, 26 September 1988
Time, 22 July 1985, 29 July 1985, 2 June 1986, 9 June 1986
U.S. News & World Report, 26 May 1986, 2 June 1986
"Famine Aid: Were We Duped?"
Rony Brauman, Reader's Digest, v129, n 774 (October 1986)
First Father, First Daughter: A Memoir
Maureen Reagan (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1989)
Public Papers of the President: Ronald Reagan, 1986, Vol. I
(Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1987)