The 1980’s saw an explosion in celebrity activism, and most of these charitable efforts focused on one lingering issue in the world…. people were starving. In the days before Calvin Klein ads and supermodel mania, lack of food was actually considered to be a problem worth tackling. Most of the initial efforts focused on the mass starvation that was going in in Africa, particularly in the country of Ethiopia. Admit it, if you’re over the age of 30, even to this day when someone mentions the word “starvation”, the first image that comes to your mind is some poor Ethiopian kid with sticks for arms and legs, and huge flies circling around his head.
So we had the Bob Geldof organized Band Aid…
Not to be outdone by their British counterparts, American musicians put together USA for Africa…
And on my 10th birthday, the two sides joined forces for Live Aid…
These three events all took place within less than a year from the Fall of 1984 through the Summer of 1985, and they were a huge success. People felt better about themselves, celebrities got some much needed exposure, and plenty of money was raised to ship food to Africa for the evil dictators there to hoard from the people who really needed it. But there was just one problem, Africa didn’t have a monopoly on this whole starvation thing.
There were plenty of people starving right here in the good old U. S. of A., and they had to be pretty pissed off to see all of the efforts the rich and famous were making to feed those who were living on the other side of the world while they had to resort to digging through Lionel Ritchie’s garbage can. Would anyone step up and raise money and awareness for those mouths that needed more nutrition than a half eaten Big Mac from a dumpster could provide?
Yes they would. And they would do it with one of the most ridiculous nationwide charity events in the history of philanthropy….
Since it’s a no-brainer that the best way to raise awareness for starving Americans was to get together enough people to form a human line of Red Rover from coast to coast, the idea for Hands Across America was born. On Sunday May 25, 1986, event organizers were going to string together a human chain of hungerbusters from New York City to Los Angeles and have them sing kumbaya songs. Could you imagine millions of people holding hands with total strangers these days with all of the germophobes we have out there?
As ridiculous as the idea sounds of trying to gather up enough people to stretch from the Pacific to the Atlantic, the Hands organizers made things even harder for themselves by ignoring one of the basic rules of math. Had they planned the route for the chain more like in their logo I posted above, it would have made more sense, but here’s the actual route that was used for Hands Across America….
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to crisscross the Mississippi River three times. Wouldn’t it have worked a little better to have the route be as close to a straight line as possible? of course, even a straight line isn’t going to solve the problem of American geography that is the vast expanse of mountains and deserts that make up the western third of the country. Try finding enough people to form a 500 mile chain through the sparsely populated Southwest desert. Yeah, they didn’t, so in the many places where there were going to be huge breaks in the human chain, long ribbons were substituted to link up Hands holders. This event wound up using more police tape than during the entire run of Law & Order.
Then there was the problem of those who felt “Left Outt”…
Politicians and public figures from New England, the South, the Northern Plains, the Northwest, and even Alaska and Hawaii were miffed at being excluded from the Hands Across America fun, and instead of embracing the spirit of the event decided to boycott it instead. Yes, it has to be a huge ego blow to big cities like Boston, Miami and Seattle to have to sit on the sidelines while the likes of Little Rock, Amarillo, and Bumfuck Arizona got to enjoy all the hand holding fun. It’s an important lesson that no matter how noble and inclusive your intentions are, somebody out there is going to still feel like you’re screwing them over.
If you really want to be entertained, check out the list of cities with some of the notable participants that appears on the Wikipedia page for Hands Across America. Yes, Cincinnati managed to bring out Chewbacca from Star Wars, because who else would anyone ever associate with the Queen City but the world’s most famous Wookiee?
So in the end, was this ambitious yet ludicrous event actually a success? Well, as far as how much money it raised, most estimates I have found state that Hands Across America really didn’t raise much more money than it spent organizing and promoting the event. But Hands did bring to light the issue that we needn’t look any further than our own backyards when it came to helping out the hungry, and that has generated countless indirect donations of time and money in the effort to feed our own people in the years since the mass hand holding. Yet while Live Aid and We Are The World have lived on in our collective memories over the past 25+ years, Hands Across America has largely slipped from the public consciousness… mostly remembered only for the absurdity of the whole gimmick behind it.
But that’s fine and dandy enough to get a Flashback Friday salute from The Nest, and we cheerfully extend our paws to our fellow critters today in honor of one of this country’s forgotten spectacles. While it may tug at our hearts more to see a poor, starving kid in Africa be exploited by an ironically overweight actress from the 70’s, let us never forget that charity always starts in the home….