Saturday, December 2, 2006

Last month, an American icon passed from this world without much fanfare. The death of Sputnik Monroe, though, deserves more attention, because he was the least likely civil rights hero America has ever seen.

Sputnik Monroe was a professional wrestler who declared to all who would listen that he was “235 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal with a body that women loved and men feared.” He also was a rebel, but not in the traditional Southern good old boy way. He rebelled against the racism that ruled in Memphis, Tenn., and other places throughout the south in the 1960s.

Monroe was a wrestling star in the south and the biggest draw in Memphis at a time when public events there were still segregated. Traditionally, black fans sat in their restricted section for wrestling matches, until Monroe embraced those fans and demanded they be allowed to sit wherever they wanted.

“He was a hero to the black community in Memphis,” said Jim Ogle, former director of operations at the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, where there is an exhibit honoring Monroe featuring his gold wrestling jacket, flowered trunks and wrestling shoes. The accompanying plaque reads: “Sputnik Monroe played a major part in destroying the color lines in Memphis entertainment venues.”

Born Roscoe Brumbaugh, Monroe was from Dodge City, Kan., and got his start in professional wrestling when he beat a traveling carnival grappler in a take-on-all-comers show. He moved around on the wrestling circuit until he wound up in Memphis in 1958.

This was the time of Elvis Presley and Sam Phillips and Sun Records, and Monroe fit right in. He became close friends with Phillips, the wild genius who brought Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins to fame. Monroe even trained Phillips’ 12-year-old son, Jerry, to be part of his act as a “midget” wrestler.

Monroe became a Beale Street fixture, particularly in the black clubs, and he gained a huge following in the black community. But black fans were limited to a handful of seats in the highest balcony of Ellis Auditorium. Monroe constantly battled the local promoters, who feared retribution if they did not limit the number of blacks attending such a public event along with white fans. But Monroe threatened to leave the promoter if he didn’t allow more black fans in.

“There used to be a couple of thousand blacks outside wanting in,” Monroe said. “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 sure wanted the revenue.”

There were so many black fans that the promoter had little choice but to integrate the seating — something that wasn’t done at any other public events in Memphis.

Monroe said he became so popular that city officials feared his influence and tried to get him to leave town.

“I used to get arrested for vagrancy for hanging out on Beale Street,” he said. “I got a black lawyer and went to court. I told them this was the United States of America, and I could go wherever I … pleased. They fined me $25, but after about a half-dozen arrests, they gave up.”

Later in his career, he had a black tag-team partner, Norvell Austin, and they had an act that started after they defeated an opponent, who usually was white. Monroe would dump a can of black paint on the guy and yell into the ring microphone, “Black is beautiful.” Austin would yell, “White is beautiful,” and then the two of them would yell, “Black and white together is beautiful.”

In places like Birmingham, Ala., and Macon, Ga., that would infuriate fans, which only encouraged Monroe.

It was racist anger that led to him getting the nickname Sputnik. Driving to a show in Greenwood, Miss., one night, he picked up a black hitchhiker.

“We got to the television station in Greenwood for the match, and I brought him in with me. I had my arm around him when we went into the place, and there was nearly a riot in the place,” Monroe said. “This one old lady was cursing at me like a sailor in the arena. There was a curtain we were behind, and I heard this woman screaming. So I opened up the curtain and kissed this guy on the cheek. She went nuts but had already been warned by security to stop cursing. So she said, ‘You’re nothing but a … Sputnik.’”

Sputnik, of course, was the Soviet satellite that had just been launched into space at the height of the Cold War, so there were few things worse than a communist.

“I was Sputnik Monroe after that,” he said.

Monroe died at the age of 77, and wrestled into his 60s. He once wrestled Billy Wicks before a crowd of more than 20,000 fans, with former heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano as the guest referee. It was front page news in Memphis.

When Wicks spoke to the Commercial Appeal of Memphis last month after Monroe’s death, he nailed the essence of Sputnik Monroe: “I tell ya this, they ain’t gonna make any more like Sputnik Monroe.”

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