Hands Across America, Five Years Later . . .

Some sang. Others danced. Most wore T-shirt declarations. A few stood at the edges before joining the line. A few backed away. . . .

And whose hands were you holding that Sunday five years ago?

May 25, 1986, Hands Across America, and the great public relations, social commitment, celebrity-supported event was the unifying yellow-ribbon spectacular of the ‘80s. For almost 5.5 million Americans, that Sunday produced 15 minutes of fame and eventually $16 million for spending on hunger issues.

Hands became the most symbolic use of a then-new idea: pop charity, the powerful merging of big show-business names with the reach and impact of television to attack such demanding public issues as the hungry and the homeless. Along with a slice of salesmanship.


What British musician Bob Geldof wrought with Live Aid and the issue of African famine quickly led to the recording in the United States of “We Are the World,” then the parade of Hands Across America and eventually Farm Aid, Comedy Relief and last weekend’s televised concert for Kurdish refugees.

Some daringly thought human suffering would come down when the curtain dropped.

But some of the ideas and some of the social programs remain. Consider the pop charity that Hollywood manager and producer Ken Kragen put together with Harry Belafonte and others, USA for Africa, “We Are the World” and Hands Across America.

The governing foundation for these projects, USA for Africa, still has some money to spend and some projects to encourage, but it is in a terminal stage, down to spending its last $5 million.


Executive Director Marcia Thomas says USA for Africa was never intended to endure: “Our intent always was to be short term. Actually, we lasted a lot longer than we anticipated.”

The staff is down to three from last year’s 11. The board of five directors meets occasionally. The board once included, among others, Belafonte, Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers. Belafonte and Kragen remain.

USA for Africa has done what it intended: It caught our attention first on hunger in Africa and then on hunger and homelessness in America. The largest amount of money raised, $60 million in royalties from the 1985 recording of “We Are the World,” went into thousands of African-operated projects involved with health improvement, literacy and water conditions. In the United States, the money was used to help social programs that could become self-sustaining.

Most of the $60 million came in the months following the release of the record. In 1987, CBS Records ended its distribution and started closing its books on collecting royalties, hunting for receivables everywhere. In dribbles, an additional $6 million was found. More recently, $60,000 arrived from a South African company.


Many of the funded projects continue, Thomas says. She is most proud of HandsNet, a nationwide computer network of agencies involved in hunger programs, and of Food Partnership, an operation in Bell that involves truckers and restaurant owners in getting unused food distributed to shelters.

“What we did inspired the American public to respond to the needs shown in ‘We Are the World’ and Hands Across America. We were able to galvanize interest and to focus that interest on serious social problems. Volunteerism rocketed in the last five years and has stayed high.

“People realized they could help in their neighborhoods as well as in the world. We learned to believe we could help. Attitudes changed.”

Kragen also sees changed attitudes as a major accomplishment of his pop charity efforts. “Our impact in Hands and USA for Africa is that we got people to look at certain issues, to confront problems. We tried to get the media’s attention first about hunger and homelessness in this country and in Africa. Certainly we feel frustration that the problems are still here. But now we talk about them. They are in the open. A lot more people are doing something about them, especially at the local levels.”


Kragen says many of his attitudes have changed, too. Gone are the eight-day weeks of charity programs and Hollywood management. He might spend up to six hours a month on USA for Africa now. His client list is smaller: Kenny Rogers, Burt Reynolds and country singer Travis Tritt.

A new priority is his 14-month-old son. “My life is simpler now,” he says. “Those were heady days then in 1986. The business is smaller, but life is so much more fun.”

Change also is the only constant for most pop charities. Suddenly there is the urgency of new issues--the Kurds, the environment, AIDS--and the rush to perform. Away from the famous names, one idea always remains: that an event like a 4,150-mile hand-holding project, a new recording, a global television special or a high-concept concert can somehow mend our social fabric.