It was 73 degrees at noon on Sunday, May 25, 1986. The day was sunny and clear, perfect weather for an unprecedented national event. At precisely 3 p.m. EST, noon PST, an unbroken (well, almost) chain of Americans clasped hands beginning in New York, through Washington D.C., across the country and ending at the Queen Mary in Long Beach. Were you one of the 5 million people to participate in Hands Across America?
It was the Eighties. The hair was big. The shorts were short. And celebrity activism was at its peak. Fresh off the success of its fundraising hit song “We Are The World,” USA for Africa proposed an enterprising plan: Enlist 6 million Americans to form a human chain from coast to coast to raise $50 million for hungry and homeless Americans. But would it work?
It took nine months of planning and more than 400 volunteers to coordinate the chain that stretched for the better part of 4,125 miles. People flocked from all over the country to be a part of the momentous event, donating their money and time over Memorial Day Weekend to help the cause, and Long Beach was no exception.
“There was an awareness that you could do something bigger [to help] besides sit at home and talk about it,” says Jeanine Vaden, who participated with her daughter’s Campfire house. “The girls must have been about 7 – 8 years old. They were so excited. When we all grasped hands they began singing Kumbaya together.”
The official chain entered Long Beach from Pacific Coast Highway, where it worked its way down the Los Angeles River and on to Ocean Boulevard. It headed east on Shoreline Drive before turning onto Queensway Drive. Offshoots of the official route cropped up all over town, from Second Street to the Traffic Circle.
“We did Hands Across America!” Jodie Hawkins remembers excitedly. “Our family was involved in the part around the Traffic Circle.”
The hand holding came to an end in the great 908, boasting a star-studded finale that went from 9 am to 3 pm and included concerts, activities, food, and a re-creation of the Hands Across America Logo with local participants. The biggest entertainers of the day - from Dolly Parton to Whoopi Goldberg to Raquel Welch - lent their celebrity power to help homelessness and hunger, all while atop Long Beach’s own Queen Mary.
“The ship represents hope, and that’s what this is all about,” said Sandy Patterson to event organizers in 1986. She attended the event at the finish on the Queen Mary. “We’re not going to solve all the problems of the homeless today, but maybe we’ll give them some hope.”
Across Long Beach and the country, at precisely noon PST, the chain grabbed hands and held together for approximately 15 minutes. Serenaded by the sounds of “We Are The World,” “Hands Across America” and “America the Beautiful,” Americans were connected as one to support a singular cause for a brief radiant moment, from sea to shining sea.
“I’m getting chills just thinking about how special it was,” John Royce, local historian and Long Beach resident recalls. “It was a special, special thing.”