In the spring of 1981, a young man named Lou Zettler was scouting the north shore of St. Croix for an available rental house and came across an unoccupied home at the road’s edge near Cane Bay.
“It appeared abandoned, and I pulled in to have a look. The door was open; no vehicles were parked out front,” Zettler said.
Curiosity got the better of him, and he stepped inside.
There he encountered a home ransacked, torn apart and downright eerie. While the issue of trespassing crossed his mind, he worried more that “whoever had just trashed the house would come back. I wanted to get the hell out of there,” he said.
As he made for the door, Zettler spotted an events ticket amid the mayhem on the living room floor: Salute and Support the Heroes of the South, Madison Square Garden, May 24, 1956.
A name on the ticket – Rev. Martin Luther King – rang a bell.
King’s birthday was not a national holiday at the time, and Zettler had been a small child in Delaware during the early civil rights movement in the South. He knew little about King back in 1981. Still, he thought the ticket might have value – if not for him, for someone else.
“I don’t know why the ticket caught my eye. How I still have it, I don’t know,” he said.
As it turned out, King did not speak at the rally. His work with the Montgomery Improvement Association detained him in Alabama.
Other rally headliners included Autherine Lucy, the first African American student to attend the University of Alabama; Dr. T.R.M. Howard who founded the Regional Council of Negro Leadership; Mississippi civil rights leader Gus Courts; and Eleanor Roosevelt. Tallulah Bankhead attended, as did Rosa Parks who received a standing ovation. Singer and guitarist Josh White performed.
Billed as “New York’s Greatest Civil Rights Rally,” the event drew 20,000 people, according to the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the NAACP sponsored the rally, which was free and offered reserved seating.
Zettler, now an insurance agent in Dallas, wants to donate the ticket to a permanent Martin Luther King Jr. exhibit, preferably on St. Croix. He calls this his “fourth quarter” of life, and he is cleaning out his closets.
“I would like to see it in a glass box along with any other memorabilia that someone might have hidden away in a drawer,” Zettler said.
He thinks the ticket belongs in Government House in Christiansted and has reached out to Richard Motta Jr., director of communications for the office of the governor, but has not yet heard back from him.
If the ticket doesn’t come home to the Virgin Islands, Zettler will give it to a museum with an ongoing Martin Luther King Jr. exhibit in Dallas.
Although he has lived in Texas for a long time, Zettler has maintained a love affair with the big island for 40 years and has returned often.
“When you open that airplane door and you smell that breeze, you’re home,” he said.
He has brought his kids and showed them around the island, pointing out his old favorite spots and telling stories from days of yore.
“I would go into town on Saturday nights and shoot pool. We’d drink until dawn and then get Johnny Cakes,” he said. He lived in Estate La Vallee and worked with Brown and Root Industrial Services, which was rebuilding the jetties at the Hess Oil Refinery after a storm.
“Talk about a vibrant economy. The refinery was cooking, everybody had jobs, downtown Christiansted had this great Italian restaurant called Frank’s. Everything was just humming,” he said.
Zettler considered moving back to St. Croix and bought – and later sold – property in Hard Labor in Frederiksted. He joined the Chamber of Commerce and kept a boat in Red Hook for a while. The process of getting a business license, however, wore him down and he bailed on the idea.
Nevertheless, he would love to see the rally ticket back on the island.
“It’s a piece of history,” Zettler said. “Imagine going to Madison Square Garden and seeing all those people in one place! But the ticket was never used; the stub is still attached.”
Zettler will send it to any worthy cause but doesn’t want to see it up for sale on eBay. He said that he would gladly return the ticket to its original owner or an heir should that person come forward and want it as a keepsake.
“I hope this ticket will appeal to the younger generation participating in the Black Lives Matter movement, young people who might say, ‘Hey, let’s do a reach back and go to the roots of civil rights,’” he said.
He figures that whoever owned the ticket had the intention of going to New York City from St. Croix.
“How would you actually go to Madison Square Garden from St. Croix in 1956? What airlines served the island, and did you go through Miami?” Zettler asked. “There were propeller planes, maybe Pan Am …”
And how did the ticket get to St. Croix in the first place?