Friday, October 1, 1999

Veteran American journalist Charles Overby encountered more than he bargained for on a recent trip to West Africa. He met - and was challenged by - America's past.

Veteran American journalist Charles Overby encountered more than he bargained for on a recent trip to West Africa. He met - and was challenged by - America's past.

As chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Freedom Forum he had gone with a delegation to learn more about the news media, particularly in Mali and Senegal. But in the process, he says, 'We learned more about ourselves.'

As they prepared to open a two-day conference in Senegal he could not shake the image of West Africans being shipped to the United States as slaves. He had not expected to feel as he did and decided to apologize to the West Africans for the American role in slavery. 'It was presumptuous of me to do so,' he says, 'but I couldn't help it.

'Seeing some of the buildings where the slaves were kept before their departure, I felt a lump in my throat. How could I - the head of an American organization that promotes freedom around the world - stand in front of West African journalists, students and government leaders and carry on as if the only thing between us was the Atlantic Ocean?'

Overby said to the audience: 'In travelling to Senegal, I am acutely aware of the historical link between the United States and West Africa. The slave ships that transported your ancestors from here to my country represent a sad and tragic time in my nation's history. I cannot change the past. But I can apologize for it. To each of you, I deeply apologize for the outrageous and barbaric actions of my countrymen and my personal ancestors in the 18th and 19th centuries.

'As we approach the 21st century, let us all remember the life and words of Martin Luther King. He often quoted an old African American Baptist preacher: "We ain't what we want to be. We ain't what we're going to be. But thank God, we ain't what we were." It is in that spirit - repentance for the past and hope for the future - that I open this conference and dialogue.'

And what a dialogue it was, says Overby.

Overby reported this experience in the Forum's monthly News. 'West Africa is where slavery began,' he wrote. 'The events of previous centuries affected us dramatically. I could speak as only one American, as one Southerner. I apologized profusely.'

He was immediately met with some ugly responses. But overall, he tells me, the response was balanced with some people expressing curiosity and others support. Overby was not deterred by the possibility of criticism. When he was Executive Editor of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi in the early 1980s he decided that the paper should apologize as an institution for its past editorial support for segregation--even though it had changed hands since those days and was now owned by Gannett newspapers.

He began his editorial, 'We were wrong, wrong, wrong.' That, too, triggered some ugly calls, he says. He challenged public officials running for office to renounce their previous stands. Some did, most didn't. 'But it was an interesting exercise,' he comments.

As a reporter, Overby covered the White House, presidential campaigns, Congress and the Supreme Court. He is now responsible for the worldwide programmes of the Freedom Forum, which has more than $1 billion in assets. The Forum has operating centres in Hong Kong, London, Buenos Aires and Johannesburg and supports a network of libraries throughout Eastern and Central Europe, Russia and Asia.

Overby is excited about the way new technology could help overcome barriers to economic development. At the end of a dirt road in Bamako, Mali, he saw people in the Spider Cyber Café Internet accessing fast food and fast Internet connections. But he recognizes the problems. One group of West African reporters and editors were asked if they ever had any trouble connecting to the Internet. One reporter raised his hand and said, yes, his newspaper didn't have a telephone.