May 25, 1986: Millions participate in Hands Across America

On May 25, 1986, millions of Americans lent a hand to the poor -- literally. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, they joined hands in a human chain that snaked through 16 states and the District of Columbia.

It was a fundraising extravaganza organized with the hopes of raising $50 million to help the poor. Each person in the line was asked to pay $10.

The line started in New York City's Battery Park with a 6-year-old homeless girl named Amy Sherwood. It ended where the old cruise ship Queen Mary was docked in Long Beach, California.

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End of the line in Long Beach, California May 25, 1986. AP

"Organizers said everyone was welcome to line up and hold hands, whether they'd paid or not," reported CBS News' Bruce Morton.

Participants ranged from ordinary citizens to a collection of celebrities like Robin Williams and Oprah -- even President Reagan interrupted his Sunday afternoon and held hands with White House staffers and their children.

CBS News cameras captured an entire wedding party that came out to join the line in New Brunswick, New Jersey, as well as people holding hands in places weren't even on the route. People joined in from Alaska, Japan and South Korea.

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U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Mrs. Nancy Reagan, joined by daughter Maureen and children of White House staff, clasp hands and sing during the hands across America line in front of the White House. AP

The line ran past memorials, crossed bridges and wound through prairies. In the small Missouri town of Shawnee, the people holding hands were exactly the kind of people the day was about -- farmers hit hard by the farm depression.

"The irony is that we're the food producers, and most people probably think well that's impossible for farmers to be hungry," farmer Carlos Welty told CBS News.

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There were some gaps in the line, but organizers said the event was still a success. CBS News

"But people didn't hold hands coast to coast," Morton reported. "Hot air balloons covered part of the route in New Mexico, and in some remote areas there were just plain gaps."

Some critics called the event an over-hyped and failed fundraiser. It cost nearly $16 million to execute, and netted only $15 million after all expenses were paid -- far short of the original goal.

But the organizers said with an estimated five million participants involved, and millions raised, the event was a success.

"Did they end hunger in America? Of course not," Morton said. "But did they call attention to the problem, and get some volunteers interested in longer term work on it? Probably."