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Freedom Ride 2011: Day 3

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CHARLOTTE -- As tears tumbled down the old man's face, he wrapped his arms around the young man and held him close, so close that his gray beard bristled against his cheek.

The young man closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

And so did I, from where I stood a few feet away.

"I didn't want to let him go," Bakhrom Ismoilov said, a few minutes later. "I felt like, a fatherly love. The last time I got a hug from my own father was a long time ago, when I was very small."

Ismoilov and the old man, J. Charles Jones (pictured) stood in the middle of the basement cafeteria at the United House of Prayer for All People in Charlotte, North Carolina on Tuesday morning (May 10), and shared something familiar, yet so very far away.

And it looked like fatherly love, too.

I don't think I ever shared such a moment with my own father, let alone a stranger. This kind of embrace between the men in my family is usually reserved for weddings or funerals, not a random Tuesday morning.

But truth be told, this meeting was anything but random.

Ismoilov, 22, is an exchange student from Tajikistan studying at Eastern Oregon University, and since Sunday he has been traveling with 39 other college students and nearly a half-dozen original Freedom Riders recreating their courageous journey into the Deep South some 50 years earlier.

Jones, who lives in Charlotte, is a legend of the Civil Rights Movement, a pioneer of the sit-ins, a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and one of the more than 400 Freedom Riders who challenged the Jim Crow laws of the day. These days Jones is a lion in winter -- his roar still the protest and freedom songs that spill from his lips in long waves with laughter and sometimes tears.

"This is a blessing, man. This is a spiritual connection with the ancestors, with the slaves working 12 and 15 hours a day hoping that at some point we'd be here in this way," Jones said. "How can I not reflect and let it flow through to each and every one of you."

"And I don't care if I got tears in my eyes," he said. "I'm 73 years old and I don't have to be macho on nothing. But maybe this is the highest macho, when you can let your tears flow every now and then."


When he pulled away from Ismoilov, he whispered something into his ear, and then went on to embrace the other young men and women who by then had gathered around him.

"Everything he has been through was in his eyes," Ismoilov said. "And when he hugged me I just felt all these feelings like, I was feeling those experiences."

Back in Tajikistan, Ismoilov's own father is an out-of-work entrepreneur, and his mother, a pediatrician, started a small pharmacy. It has been a very long time since he has seen them -- Ismoilov has been traveling the world since he was 15, the globe has been his classroom. His parents are proud, he said. They have good reason to be.

That day in the church basement, I watched as Ismoilov and student after student fell into Jones's arms. I listened as he lead them in old freedom songs and, I watched them cry. And I saw what could only be described as love. I'm convinced it was what Freedom Rider Diane Nash called "agapic energy."

I wonder if Jones felt any of that same energy back in late January of 1961, when he joined a group of nine students from Friendship Junior College in nearby Rock Hill, South Carolina, later known as the Friendship Nine, at a prison work farm after they'd been arrested during a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter. In refusing bail, they forced the jailers to foot the bill for their incarceration.

The men sparked a new tactic known thereafter as "jail, no bail," and it would be adopted nationally where activists were filling jails to put pressure on the system. Organizations such as C.O.R.E and S.N.C.C. were going broke bailing out their members.

"A lot happened in South Carolina. The riders experienced the first real violence, the first real trouble," said Ray Arsenault, civil rights historian and author of the book 'Freedom Riders,' the basis for the Stanley Nelson documentary by the same name. Arsenault is somewhat of a guide for this group's trip.

Back on the bus outside of the church yesterday, as the group prepared to leave Charlotte for Rock Hill, Lily Astiz, a student rider from New York University, and Erica Shekell, from Michigan State University, were both in tears.

"It's just amazing how, during the movement they fought such violence with love, a philosophy of love," Astiz said. And like Ismoilov, she was also deeply moved by Jones. "It was like, he filled me with light."

The engine roared and the bus slowly pulled away. Jones, the old lion waved and faded in the morning light.

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