AS I SEE IT 1/20: Remembering Sputnik Monroe on MLK Day
On a Martin Luther King Day, where the wrestling world saw a major promotion’s female star accused of racism and bullying only hours before she was made the first woman to win their main title just a week ago…and where later today in Richmond, VA, armed militia groups (including white supremacist groups, three of whose members have already been arrested for attempts to incite violence) are to march around the state capitol in numbers sizable enough to have the Governor declare a State of Emergency… at times like these, it’s worth remembering Sputnik Monroe.
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 old time 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. He had a 43 year wrestling career from 1945 to 1988, with one appearance at a legends show in 2005.
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 goes 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[ing] 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 among 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 $@#@ng cool. He had his audience, and he never played down to ’em, never talked down to ’em. He became a role model.’
Sputnik says this of his influence on young whites, ‘There was a group of wealthy white kids that dug me because I was a rebel. I’m saying what they wanted to say, only they were just too young or inexperienced or afraid to say it. You have a black maid raising your kids and she’s talking about me all of the time, so I may not be in the front living room, but I’m going in the back door of your @#@$@ 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 was part of a interracial tag team with Norvell Austin in 1971, a pairing which was unheard of at the time….and were heels yet. Monroe and Austin had a joint catch phrase where Monroe said “black is beautiful” and Austin would reply “white is wonderful”…strong words for wrestlers in the American South only three years after the murder of Martin Luther King.
For those who’ve grown up in a world where anyone travels on a bus…sits in a movie theatre or sports arena anywhere they choose to (or least can afford)…eats in a restaurant…goes to a college or university… all this may seem hard to understand.
But what Rocco Monroe Brumbaugh did defies description when you look through the eyes of his times. The Jim Crow South featured an entrenched racism that is horrifying to look at in retrospect, with racial separation in public transportation an accepted fact. There were separate water fountains for blacks and whites. Blacks were kept from eating in (white) restaurants, and were forced to attend separate (but not equal) schools.
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 eight year old child living in suburban Detroit, I remember hearing about a local Detroit-area woman, Viola Liuzzo, who was murdered in 1965 by racist whites for in daring to do her part to desegregate 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.
There were others like Lamar Smith, murdered in broad daylight on a courthouse lawn for organizing voting drives… Herbert Lee, murdered by a Mississippi state legislator in cold blood for driving blacks to register to vote…. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister clubbed to death in Selma…Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by an Alabama state trooper as he tried to protect his grandfather and mother from a trooper attack on a civil rights march…James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner murdered for campaigning for voting rights during the Freedom Summer campaign in Mississippi….and too many others.
Thousands more were jailed, beaten, and ostracized for efforts toward equal public accommodations, ending “separate but equal” schools, and gaining equal voting rights. Rocco Monroe Brumbaugh took a chance by doing what he dared to do, and put his own life at risk. He and his family got their house egged and their lives threatened (as well those of his children). Fortunately, he didn’t have to pay with his life. He was one of the lucky ones.
We’ve seen a succession of incidents over the last three plus years that remind us that even 60 years later, we are nowhere near successful in dealing with America’s original sin: racism. We’re even less successful in dealing with gun violence. The fact that today’s demonstration in Virginia against gun control legislation has been co-opted by white supremacists and others threatening violence (significant enough that these threats forced cancellation of today’s scheduled Martin Luther King Jr. Day Vigil due to concerns for public safety) should scare the hell out of any decent person, no matter their politics.
There are few physical reminders of what Sputnik Monroe did back 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 wrestling 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.
As a wrestler, Sputnik Monroe was a headliner in many territories. He and Billy Wicks set a Memphis attendance record with their long-time feud, one that lasted all the way until the 1990s Monday Night WCW/WWF wars. Monroe’s last major public wrestling appearance was in July 2005, when he and Wicks reprised their feud at a legends show.
Wrestling fame notwithstanding, Brumbaugh should be known around the United States and anywhere this blog 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 digital video, on Monday or Wednesday nights, or in a lifetime of PPVs.
Sputnik Monroe was certainly that hero to many in Memphis’s black community, even 40 plus years later. John (Johnny Dark) Dougherty, cited in the 2008 Smokebox story above, tells a story of walking down Beale Street with Monroe just before his 2006 death:
“We were walking down Beale Street and a teenage black kid came up to us and he said, ‘Sputnik Monroe.’ Sputnik said, ‘You weren’t even born when I was here.’ The kid said, ‘My mom’s family has a picture of you on the wall.’ He said they had a picture of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Sputnik Monroe and Jesus Christ.”
It would have been nice to see All Elite Wrestling add a relative of Sputnik Monroe to last week’s tribute to Memphis Wrestling and honor him as well; especially given the awareness shown by AEW in such areas as LGBT diversity, helping victims of gun violence, and awareness toward those on the autism spectrum. Maybe if another Memphis Wrestling tribute is done, they can do so (Bill Dundee would be a nice addition, too…but for more typical wrestling reasons). There is certainly precedent: WWE named Monroe to the Legacy Wing of their Hall of Fame in 2018 to specifically honor what he did to desegregate Memphis wrestling.
By the way, if you haven’t seen that Memphis Wrestling tribute from AEW DARK last week, make a point of doing so. The tribute featured Dave Brown, Doug Gilbert (representing Tommy and Eddie Gilbert), Lanny Poffo (representing his father Angelo and Randy Savage), Austin Idol, the Rock ‘N Roll Express, Jimmy Valiant, Kevin Lawler (representing Brian Christopher). Dave Brown also called matches on this show with Excalibur. You can find it at this link.
Until next time….