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AS I SEE IT: Sputnik Monroe and racism in the American South
Bob Magee
Pro Wrestling: Between the Sheets

On a weekend where the film “42” premieres. the story of Jackie Robinson’s desegrating baseball during the years after World War II, it seemed appropriate to remember the story again of  what one wrestler did to fight a different kind of racism many years ago in the American South.

For those of you who haven’t ever heard of him, Rocco Monroe Brumbaugh, better known as Sputnik Monroe, was a legendary character in the true oldtime Southern wrestling manner. If that was all Sputnik Monroe was…that would have been more than enough for a few good stories among old friends and students of wrestling.

But his most important contribution to the world had nothing to do with a program he worked, a legendary story about him, or a dime he ever drew for a promoter.

The story was well-told just after his September 2008 death on the Smokebox.net website…how Rocco Monroe Brumbaugh singlehandedly started the process of desegregating not just wrestling…but entertainment overall in Memphis, TN.

The 2008 story from Smokebox.net and my comments about it go like this:

“…Like all wrestlers, Sputnik would seek the approval of the audience once he had destroyed his opponent. Just as the surviving Roman gladiators would strut their stuff to governors, patricians and other assorted Roman gentry in the arena, Sputnik would perform his victory romp, exhorting praise from the crowd.

But unlike any other white wrestler, Sputnik would not focus his attention on the front rows, nor the women, nor the box seats, nor the predominantly white on-lookers.

Instead, he would turn to the small black audience, segregated away in the upper rafters of Ellis Auditorium, and it was from them that he received kudos. Sputnik was fast becoming a draw card and the promoters and wrestling money people knew this.

He was able to use his notoriety to exact changes in the wrestling establishment. He recalls, ‘There used to be a couple of thousand blacks outside wanting in. So I would tell management I’d be cutting out if they don’t let my black friends in. I had the power because I’m selling out the place, the first guy that ever did, and they damn sure wanted the revenue.’

The way the business people would limit the black audience was by counting the number of black people allowed entrance into the auditorium, knowing exactly the seating capacity of the ‘blacks only’ section. Sputnik would bribe the employee, who counted black people, to lie to his boss, giving the boss a much lower number of attendees than there actually were. So, when the overseer would demand numbers, the door guy would say something like ‘thirty’ when there were really five-hundred or more black folks in the building.

Jim Dickinson, a well known fixture of the Memphis music scene, (he played piano on ‘Wild Horses,’ which the Rolling Stones recorded at the Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama) remembers, ‘Finally, the audience got so big and heavily black that they had to integrate the seating. There’s no other single event that integrated the audience other than the wrassling matches and Sputnik paying the guy to lie.’

Johnny Dark, now a Memphis sportscaster, was then president of the Sputnik Monroe Fan Club.

He recounts, “I remember one time Sputnik was wrassling in Louisville. In the dressing room, this little black lady came up to Sputnik, she had tears in her eyes, she said ‘You don’t remember me, you never met me, but I used to live in Memphis, when they made us sit upstairs in those buzzard seats. You’re the one who got them to change that.’ That was the first time I saw Sputnik with tears in his eyes.”

Sputnik’s one-man campaign had ripple effects all across Memphis, not only in the black community, but also amongst young white kids. Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Sam Phillips had already opened the valve, releasing emotions in young white people that caused grave concern for the enforcers of the status quo. And here was this upstart wrestler, not just playing with young kids minds, but messing with the gas that fueled how things ran in Memphis, namely racism.

Another fan of that era, Jim Black says ‘I went through my whole twelve years at school having never been able to share an experience with a black, and I was starting to resent this, because I was also listening to radio and Dewey Phillips, and hearing all these great black records and realizing that these were some talented artists, this was another culture.

Where, at first, we’d gone to the matches hoping to see Sputnik get beat, we started to realize that he was pretty $@#@ng\ cool. He had his audience, and he never played down to ’em, never talked down to ’em. He became a role model.’

Sputnik says this of his influence on young whites, ‘There was a group of wealthy white kids that dug me beause I was a rebel. I’m saying what they wanted to say, only they were just too young or inexperienced or afraid to say it. You have a black maid raising your kids and she’s talking about me all of the time, so I may not be in the front living room, but I’m going in the back door of your @#@$@mn house, feeding your kids on Monday morning and sending ’em to school. And meeting the bus when they come home. Pretty powerful thing.’

Sputnik’s influence went way beyond the wrestling ring. He interfered righteously with the city fathers’ plans for business- as-usual. In one instance, the black leadership in Memphis was involved in a protest against the segregation of an automobile exhibition. Sputnik called up the sponsors and told them that he was planning to open his own car lot in the black community.

That night, the change of admission policy was broadcast on the evening news.”

Monroe also tag-teamed with Norvell Austin, an interracial tag team which was unheard of at the time.

For those who’ve grown up in a world where anyone travels on a bus…sits in a movie theatre or sports arena anyplace they choose to (or least can afford)…eats in a restaurant…goes to a college or university… this may not seem like such a big thing.

But what Rocco Monroe Brumbaugh did defies description when you look through the eyes of the times. The southern United States featured an entrenched racism that is horrifying to look at retrospect..

It’s a racism that also showed itself in our National pasttime and the viciousness of the reaction of all too many that greeted Jackie Robinson as he started with the Brooklyn Dodgers fdarm club, the Montreal Royals (in their US games), then with the Dodgers. It’s notable that the Philadelphia Phillies were especially guilty of this racism, most notably manager Ben Chapman

I’m old enough to have watched the civil rights movement unfold through the 1960s. Blacks and whites lost their lives attempting to desegregate the South. As a child living in suburban Detroit, I remember hearing about a local Detroit-Area woman, Viola Liuzzo, who was murdered by racist whites for daring to do her part to desegrate the South. She drove alone to Alabama to help with the Selma march after seeing televised reports of the attack at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. She was driving marchers back to Selma, AL when she was murdered.

Thousands more were jailed, beaten, or ostracized for attempting to change the entrenched system. Rocco Monroe Brumbaugh might also very well taken a chance by doing what he dared to do, and put his life at risk. Fortunately, he didn’t have to pay with his life. Not everyone was that lucky.

Ask the family of Viola Liuzzo. Ask the family of Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister beaten to death. Ask the families of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner who were murdered just for campaigning for voting rights….or the families of a hundred others .

There is little tangible physical reminder of what happened in those days in Memphis. The Ellis Auditorium was torn down in 1999 to make way for an expansion of the Memphis Cook County Convention Center. These days, most fans think of the Mid-South Coliseum or even the WMC TV studios when they think of Memphis wrestling….not the Ellis Auditorium, let alone what occurred there.

One of the few reminders of that day exists at the Memphis Rock and Soul Museum, located on Beale Street, where Monroe was publicly honored in 2002 for his role in the integration of public events.

Sputnik Monroe was a headliner in many territories. Monroe and wrestler Billy Wicks were known for setting an attendance record for their long-time feud, an attendance record that lasted all the way until the Monday Night WCW/WWF wars), Monroe’s last major public wrestling appearance was in July 2005, when he and Wicks reprised their Memphis feud at a legends show. Wrestling fame notwithstanding, Brumbaugh should be known around the United States and anywhere this column runs for helping to desegregate one of the largest cities in the American South. For that alone he ought to be a bigger hero than anyone we’ll ever see on a DVD collection, on Monday nights, or on a lifetime of PPVs.

MTV’s Movie Blog interviewed director Julien Nitzberg about his upcoming HBO Films biography of Sputnik Monroe

“Just as wrestling always has this political edge where [for example] there would be a bad Russian wrestler in the ’80s [during the Cold War], in the ’50s, [Sputnik Monroe] got to the south and was shocked by the racism there,” Nitzberg explained. “He took on the persona, strangely enough, of the pro-integration wrestler.”

The ’50s were a difficult time for Civil Rights in America, with many unwilling to let go of traditions that effectively marginalized a large portion of the American population. Much of that resistance was rooted in the south, and that’s where Monroe left his indelible mark.

“For black people he was a hero but for white people he was a wrestling bad guy,” Nitzberg said. “So he would go on TV as a wrestler talking about how integration was good and getting white southerners super-pissed at him, driving them insane, and eventually he could outsell Elvis. Through the power of wrestling and hate he was able to amass this economic power where he could… start refusing to actually wrestle at segregated sporting arenas. [He] integrated more sporting arenas in the south than the NAACP.

Until next time….

— Bob Magee