“Well, It’s time to turn on that old Lovett bullshit,” Colin quips.
“Yeah, we’ve got a lot of that,” Jack shoots back.
The love and respect between the two is infectious.
“You, me and dad – we’re for the most part carbon copies of each other,” adds Colin. “The only difference between us is 60 years and sexuality.”
For friends and Facebook followers of the younger Lovett, who is president of The LGBT Center of St. Louis, the name Jack C. Lovett is a familiar one. Following the death of his grandmother in 2009, Colin moved in with his grandfather for two years to keep him company and help look after him.
“When I moved in I was not out to him, and ironically, it was at this time that I started getting involved with the LGBT community,” Colin stated from the steps of Soldiers’ Memorial on June 29. “I would leave, put on my “Legalize Gay” shirt, march down the street for equality, then when I got back, would have the thing off before I went in the house. Over the course of the time there, I became the president of the LGBT Center’s board and fought tirelessly for the community, all the while, not being out to my grandfather.
“Two years ago, love pushed me out of the closet,” Colin continued. “I woke up one morning, went to Slackers and bought a copy of Milk (my old one was borrowed), went home, mustered up the courage and came out to him. We watched Milk, talked for hours, and turns out that at 88, an old country boy from the middle of nowhere Oklahoma turned war hero and civil rights leader can change their views again – he supported me, supported my partner, and still remained my biggest cheerleader in my goals to make a difference.”
I asked Jack how he felt when his grandson came out to him.
“To me, he’s always been the all-American boy,” he says. “Colin did everything that he was supposed to – he was a damn good student. I was just shocked and amazed, but then as I thought about it, I couldn’t help but be pleased with him that he had the courage to do that… I think I’m still going through an adjustment period on it. Early on – he had been out to everybody else but me and I can understand why, because I’m a bit of a damned old redneck in a lot of ways.”
Colin points out how his grandfather has come a long way: “It’s all about education and exposure. He really hadn’t been exposed to it and slowly and surely as he becomes more exposed to it – I think I even heard you say at the parade that ‘all of these people are like everybody else.’”
At 90 and a half, the elder Lovett remains an impressive and likable guy. The WWII veteran is folksy with a knowing, winsome smile and still possesses the passion and drive to take a stand. It turns out it’s a tradition in the Lovett family – dating back some 60-plus years.
“I tell ya, I was so impressed with it,” Jack says of first PrideFest. “I told Colin, if I’d of missed that, I’d have missed a significant part of my life. I’ve never been a part of too many things that big, it was just absolutely great. I hadn’t imagined it was going to be nearly that large – so exciting, with so many people cheering you on. It was really an inspiring thing to me.”
Colin had approached his grandfather about participating in the PrideFest wreath laying ceremony at Soldiers’ Memorial. His grandfather not only agreed, but jumped at the chance to ride in the pride parade in solidarity with his grandson.
“He could charm the balls off of a brass monkey,” Jack laughs.
It was an iconic moment: Jack, wearing his Air Force uniform and waving the American Flag and Colin, donned in Eagle Scout dress, commanding cheers as they rode past the crowds.
“I could see and feel the patriotism down there,” says Jack. “The American flag I was holding really got the applause.”
Colin adds: “My assention into being involved in some ways is centered around not being out to my grandfather. So to be riding in the parade with a sea of rainbow and 125,000 people leading the military and veterans down the street – him in full uniform at 90 and a half and me getting to do the Boy Scout uniform – it was just an overwhelming feeling.”
Growing up during the Great Depression, Jack was drawn to politics early on through FDR’s New Deal and his work in the labor movement.
“I’ve always been a strong Democrat, but the way I really got involved in politics is through the local union,” he recalls. “I was president of my local union for 12 years and while I was president I served on the City Planning Commission of Fort Smith, Arkansas, worked with the United Way and Salvation Army and on the State Board of AFL-CIO”
“He was a man of many hats,” Colin chimes in.
But it was during President Truman’s desegregation of the U.S. Military in 1950 and finding himself standing in the footprint of history in 1957 while guarding the “Little Rock Nine” that cemented Jack’s drive for social justice.
“I’ve always believed that a person ought to be able to go as far as their hard work and talent will take them without any restrictions whatsoever. It ought to be an individual thing,” offers Jack.
The Little Rock Nine were a group of African American students enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957. The ensuing Little Rock Crisis, in which the students were initially prevented from entering the racially segregated school by Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, and then attended after the intervention of President Eisenhower.
“Now in Little Rock – they had the White Citizens’ Council down there and we had a governor, Orval Faubus who was just a political animal,” Jack recalls. “And he saw [opposing integration] as a way to perpetuate himself in office.”
As Jack explains, Faubus called up the Second Battalion of the 153rd Infantry of the Arkansas National Guard to keep the African American students out of school setting up a clash between the state of Arkansas and the federal government. Eisenhower then mobilized the Arkansas National Guard and took control from Faubus. Jack Lovett’s Military Police unit was one of the groups called up.
“I would have never believed that in the state of Arkansas or in the United States that the general population would be so aggressive and deny these nine black children the right to go to Central High School,” says Jack.
“The thing that was amazing to me was how these nine black children could do as well as they did under the teaching conditions that existed,” he continues. “Because early on we had guards that were in classrooms, and as things died down, we moved the guards to the hallways. But the most dangerous situation was for the [African American] girls in the restrooms. There were no women in the army at that time and they had no protection when they were in the restroom. So they’d go into the stalls and the damn white girls would throw trash and urine and everything at them over the stalls.”
Jack’s unit kept watch over Central High for nine months and guards would break up attacks and protect the African American students as best they could. When they were able to catch abuse, students were apprehended and turned over to school officials. Mostly they would get a slap on wrist, or at worst, a short suspension.
Jack’s MP unit enjoyed a good relationship with many of the white students who would keep them informed of any covert activity that was going to take place – like the now infamous effigy burned in front of campus.
“That was the reason the Task Force Commander and I were stationed out by the flag pole in front,” he recalls. “And sure enough — at 9 a.m., out they marched, went across the street, popped the effigy outside of the tree, tore into it with a knife and then finally set it on fire.”
“When I tore down the effigy – of course, I’ve never been called so many damned names in my life,” Jack continues. “When I got the effigy down, I wasn’t sure if I was going to walk out of there with all of my teeth or not. Of course, they were closing in around me, but I looked around and there stood a rifle company with the 101st Airborne with fixed bayonets and they made a V formation and put me in the center of it.”
Shortly after, Jack was told by his general that they had intelligence that the Klu Klux Klan was going to burn a cross in front of his house in Fort Smith. They flew him home that night so he could protect his young family.
“I didn’t even have a chance to call my wife or anything, I just knocked on the front door,” offers Jack. “So I stayed there a few days and nothing ever happened. Fortunately, the police were on patrol too, but I stayed up for two nights on them bastards.”
“I grew up with these stories,” says Colin. “I’ve heard these stories well enough I could recite them. It was just sort of what you did – it was the right thing to do. So to hear stories about taking a stand when nobody else got up to take a stand – it was just what you did. I think after seeing Milk – you gotta take a stand.”
Jack C. Lovett sees a lot of himself in his grandson and is relishing his new-found role as grandfather and ally to many (the YouTube video of Jack’s speech at the wreath laying ceremony received over 1,000 hits in its first 24 hours and he’s a bit of a Facebook phenomenon.)
“People who deny other people the freedoms that they themselves have – that just staggers my imagination,” Jack explains, his voice trailing off in thought. “One of the things is that I enjoyed – I felt so comfortable with all of the people along the [PrideFest] parade route. And I’ve been gone from the public scene for so long….”
“Welcome back,” Colin replies, tipping a glass to his grandfather.
Welcome back, indeed.
Photography by STEVE TRUESDELL, BART LOVETT, ANTHONY VOLKMAN & ANDREA PIAMONTE