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17 Anniversary
2003
17
2020

Remembering Hands Across America

Posted on Saturday, May 2, 2020

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In the mid-1980s, it was an idealistic time for musicians when talented artists banded together for philanthropic purposes to raise awareness and money for famine-stricken Africa with:

  1. Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" which was released on December 3, 1984;
  2. USA for Africa's "We Are the World" which was released on March 7, 1985; and
  3. Live Aid, the mega concert that took place on July 13, 1985 in both Philadelphia and London.

On May 25, 1986, the Hands Across America charity benefit took place when an estimated 6.0 million people held hands in a human chain for fifteen minutes along a 4,137 mile route across the contiguous United States. At 3:00PM Eastern Time on the Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend 1986, Hands Across America crisscrossed through about 500 communities across four time zones. Additionally, hundreds of radio stations across the United States simultaneously played “Hands Across America” at 3:00PM.

The human chain began in Battery Park in Lower Manhattan overlooking the Statue of Liberty, and it continued into Philly and across the United States to Long Beach, California.

Hands Across America was planned by Ken Kragen from U.S.A. for Africa, the charity synonymous with the 1985 recording of “We Are the World”.

After USA for Africa raised about $53 million with its 1985 supergroup hit “We Are The World,” the organization’s president, Ken Kragen, brainstormed what some described as a stunt and others heralded as community organizing on a grand scale prior long before the Internet and social media came of age. 

Hands Across America in Philadelphia

WMMR-FM was one of the Philadelphia area organizers of the event, and it was stationed on MLK Drive (formerly West River Drive). WMMR's on-air personality Pierre Robert was one of the master of ceremonies both on-site and on-air.

Hands Across America with WMMR-FM, Pierre Robert, May 25, 1986, West River Drive in Philadelphia (Pictured: Pierre Robert (holding microphone and Buzz Barclay to the right of Pierre)

 

Below is the promotional video for Hands Across America that featured many different iconic sites from sea to shining sea across America including Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1:08 mark in video), the Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles, California, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., and the Statue of Liberty in New York, New York, etc.

The Hands Across America logo reflects a bold 80s style in the pre-Internet era.

Hands Across America Logo, May 25, 1986

As the then newly minted number 1 rated radio station in Philadelphia (with a whopping 8.8 rating in Arbitron's Spring 1985 Period), WMMR was "word of mouth at scale" in Philadelphia and could generate enormous crowds at various events. This could be seen all over Philadelphia on May 25, 1986 when it is estimated that tens of thousands of people showed up to celebrate Hands Across America with WMMR all along West River Drive (now MLK Drive), from the Falls Bridge to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, into Center City Philadelphia, past Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, and over the Ben Franklin Bridge into New Jersey.

Hands Across America with WMMR-FM, May 25, 1986, West River Drive (MLK Drive) in Philadelphia

On May 26, 1986, The New York Times reported,

"More than 80,000 people joined the line in Philadelphia and organizers estimated that a quarter of a million people took part in the state as a whole. Gov. Dick Thornburgh of Pennsylvania and his wife, Ginny, stood in front of Independence Hall and Dionne Warwick, the singer, held hands with participants in the center of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge across the Delaware River. Hands Across America was a multi-generational event attracting people of all ages and from all walks of life."

Hands Across America with WMMR-FM, Pictured Left to Right: Caryn Taylor, Walt Jost and Ken Stock, May 25, 1986, West River Drive in Philadelphia

WMMR's inflatable monkey was one of the radio station's signature promotional tools in the mid-1980s.

Hands Across America with WMMR-FM, Pictured Left to Right: Ray Koob, Annie Whitney, and Jon Bari, May 25, 1986, West River Drive in Philadelphia

WMMR had fans lined all along the West River Drive to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Hands Across America, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rocky Steps, May 25, 1986 (Photo Credit: Sam Cali)

Above is a great image of the Philadelphia Museum of Art where thousands gathered on the Rocky Steps and thousands participated in the human chain.

Hands Across America with Michael Craven, VP and General Manager of WMMR-FM (in red polo shirt), May 25, 1986, West River Drive in Philadelphia

In addition to the inflatable monkey, WMMR's station van was omnipresent at major events across the Philadelphia area in the 1980s.

Hands Across America with WMMR-FM, May 25, 1986, West River Drive in Philadelphia

Another view of the large crowds gathered together on West River Drive to celebrate Hands Across America including WMMR's official photographer, William Thomas Cane, being photographed while he was capturing the moment.

Hands Across America with WMMR-FM, Pictured William Thomas Cane (WMMR Photographer), May 25, 1986, West River Drive in Philadelphia

On the 30th Anniversary of Hands Across America, The New York Times reflected,

"Americans united on this day 30 years ago like never before. Six and a half million people formed a chain called “Hands Across America” to raise money for the nation’s hungry and homeless. It was planned by U.S.A. for Africa, the charity known for recording the song “We Are the World” in 1985... At 3 p.m. in New York and noon in Los Angeles, they joined hands for 15 minutes, enough time to sing “We Are The World,” “America the Beautiful” and the “Hands Across America” theme. The chain included fans at baseball games, staff members at the White House [including President Reagan], scuba divers in rivers, and Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck at Disneyland. One honorary chairman, the singer Kenny Rogers, delivered on his promise of a concert to get people to stand in the desert at the Texas-New Mexico border. Still, there were some gaps in the line, which were filled with a chain of paper dolls, made by children, and rope. After costs, only about $15 million was distributed, but it remains a spectacle like no other."

Hands Across America Lyrics (sung by the "Voices of America")

"This sky is so serene
Has felt the kiss of countless dreams
And this earth, it smells so sweet
Cradles us all in its great heartbeat

So we must learn to love each other
See that man over there, he's my brother

And when he laughs (I laugh)
And when he cries (I cry)
And when he need me
I'll be right there by his side

Hands across America
Hands across this land I love
Divided we fall, united we stand
Hands across America

Mothers and fathers (Mothers and fathers)
Daughters and sons (Daughters and sons)
Should be living together as one
And I can't help thinking again and again
The heart of a stranger beats the same as a friend

So we must learn to love each other
See those people other there, they're my sister and brother

And when they laugh (I laugh)
And when they cry (I cry)
And when they need me
I'll be right there by their side

Hands across America
Hands across this land I love
Divided we fall, united we stand
Hands across America

We are the river of hope
That runs through the valley of fear
And there's a lady whose smile shines upon us
Saying "All are welcome here"

So we must learn to love each other
See that man over there, he's my brother

And when he laughs (I laugh)
And when he cries (I cry)
And when he needs me
I'll be right there, right there by his side
Oh

Hands across America
Hands across this land I love
Divided we fall, united we stand
Hands across America

Hands across America (Oh, across America)
Hands across this land I love (This land I love)
Divided we fall (Stand up)
United we stand (Ooh, stand up)
Hands across America

Hands across America (Hands across America)
Hands across this land I love
Divided we fall (Stand up)
United we stand (Stand up)
Hands across America

Hands across America
Hands across this land I love (This land I love)
Divided we fall, united we stand..."

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