BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - In February, a contingent of World Wrestling Entertainment superstars toured the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and talked about the racial struggles of the Deep South as part of a Black History Month video package.
Perhaps unbeknownst to them, in that same city, one of their own became a trailblazer 60 years ago for integrating sports arenas throughout the Deep South. His name was Roscoe Monroe Brumbaugh, better known by his wrestling stage name, “Sputnik Monroe.”
He was a Kansas-born white professional wrestler whose over-the-top antics, both in and outside the ring, led to the racial integration of his industry in the Deep South.
“He was a civil rights icon,” said Scott Teal, a Gallatin, Tennessee native, who has written books about professional wrestling’s famed “territory days,” when crowds flocked to venues in cities like Mobile and Pensacola for the ring events and local TV aired the rollicking matches.
“He really changed, especially in the South, the culture of wrestling … He broke the color barrier as far as people attending wrestling matches,” said Jerry “The King” Lawler, a longtime Memphis wrestling legend and a 2007 inductee into the WWE Hall of Fame.
‘Rock’ to ‘Sputnik’
Monroe’s height of popularity and civil rights influence occurred after 1959, when he arrived in Memphis and began drawing sell-outs to the Ellis Auditorium.
But it was in Mobile, in December 1957, in which a barreled-chested, gruff-speaking brawler named “Rock Monroe” arrived in the Port City after a long drive from Washington state. He was scheduled to make an appearance in the WKRG-TV studio to cut a promo for the Gulf Coast Championship Wrestling organization, which at the time was a burgeoning territory in which matches were booked by wrestler, Buddy Fuller.
His Mobile trip and subsequent TV appearance has become a renowned wrestling tale: On the way into Mobile, Monroe picked up a black hitchhiker - some accounts claim this occurred in Mississippi, others say it happened in Citronelle.
“He offered the guy some money so he could help him drive so he could rest,” said Mike Norris, a Gulf Coast wrestling historian. “When they drove up to the TV studio, segregation was obviously a pretty big thing in Alabama in those days. Sputnik heard the crowd grumbling about him being with a black man, so he grabbed and kissed him on the cheek.”
Standing nearby was an irate woman, who began hurling invectives at Monroe. Said Norris, “The dirtiest thing she could think of was ‘you’re a damn Sputnik.’”
The insult was relevant for the times. Two months earlier, the Soviet Union had triumphantly launched the Sputnik satellite, startling the U.S. public and fueling unease that the “Reds” were gaining an upper hand.
And the name quickly stuck. When Monroe got in the wrestling ring, the announcer introduced him as “Sputnik Monroe,” said John Dougherty, who palled around with Monroe during the wrestler’s Memphis heyday along with Jerry Phillips, the son of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips. Dougherty, a retired radio disc jockey, also ran Monroe’s fan club in Memphis.
Monroe, in hindsight, realized that irate woman in Mobile had launched him into notoriety just like the satellite. “He would say that he wished he knew how to thank her but didn’t know who she was,” said Dougherty.
‘Bucked the system’
Fully embracing his Sputnik nickname, Monroe, of Dodge City, Kansas, cultivated a reputation as a vainglorious wrestling villain. With a white streak in his jet-black hair and a gaudy strut, he’d engage in trash-talking interviews, braying outlandish boasts. He was a “diamond ring and Cadillac man,” he declared. “It’s hard to be humble when you’re 235 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal with a body that women love and men fear.”
Said Dougherty: “When he came to Memphis, they were averaging 300 people a night (at wrestling shows). By the time he started wrestling, 7,000 people were coming out to see him. He could’ve run for mayor and could’ve been elected. That’s how big he was in this town.”
Monroe became the “most hated man in Memphis,” according to reports at the time, when he feuded with ring rival Billy Wicks, the “all-American” sheriff’s deputy who’d also made appearances wrestling in Mobile.
The two drew a record 13,749 fans to a match in 1959, which stood as an indoor-arena attendance record in Memphis for more than 30 years.
Monroe, ever the astute showman, kept pushing the boundaries of Memphis social propriety, frequenting the city’s bluesy Beale Street, a center of African-American business and nightlife.
In 1960, he was arrested and charged with “mopery” for hanging out in a black-owned bar. To represent him in the case, Monroe hired a black lawyer, Russell B. Sugarmon Jr., turning heads anew. In the end, the judge fined him $25.
“This is just the kind of guy Sputnik was. At the time, it was taboo and unheard of. But Sputnik didn’t care,” said Lawler, who has a framed newspaper article about Monroe’s case hanging on the wall of his wrestling-themed bar and grill in Memphis. “He bucked the system.”
He bucked it big time when he began to openly question why the top Memphis promoters at the time, Roy Welch and Nick Gulas, adhered to rigid segregation of fan seating at Ellis Auditorium, putting black folks in the upper deck and letting white folks sit in the easier-to-get-to and closer-to-the-action lower seats.
“He insisted the promoters let black people, who were up in the balconies, sit down with the white people,” said Dougherty. “He said he would leave if they didn’t do it. They said, ‘We’ll miss you.’ Then, their crowds would drop down to 300 a night again, so they went ahead and let the black people sit with the whites.”
The open seating is widely regarded as the first act of public integration in Memphis. In time, admirers would remember it as Monroe’s finest moment.
“He would go to a promoter and say, ‘We work for a percentage of the house, so doesn’t it make sense to get everyone’s money?’” recalled Jimmy “Mouth of the South” Hart, a famed wrestling manager and a 2005 inductee into the WWE Hall of Fame. “He said that this wasn’t about racism, it was about us making a living. That was his whole deal.”
‘Egged several times’
Monroe’s rebelliousness didn’t sit well in the white South. Taunting and intimidation followed him even to the small central Louisiana town of Tioga, where he made his home with his family.
“Mama and Daddy got those threats and stuff like, ‘Do you know where your kids are?’” recalled Monroe’s daughter, Natalie Bell, who lives now in Tucson, Arizona, where she’s a nurse practitioner. “The only time I felt scared or threatened was when Mama showed fear.”
Marjorie “Midge” Bell, now 83, was married to Monroe for 10 years during the grappler’s Memphis prime. They had two children: Natalie Bell and Quentin Bell (who went on to wrestle under the moniker “Bubba Monroe).
She had the children’s last names changed from Brumbaugh to Bell, in part, for their own safety.
“Our home was egged several times. I always had to be very careful when I went to the grocery store with the children,” said Midge, who still lives in Louisiana, and who - years ago — briefly became a wrestling personality herself — the “Cajun Queen” — in Alexandria, Louisiana.
“He was hated so much because of his activity with the blacks,” she said of Monroe. “He would spend his weekends on Beale Street and promoting wrestling and hanging out in the black bars and restaurants and … They absolutely idolized him and thought he was some kind of hero. I really don’t know how else to explain it. I know that he always felt they didn’t get a fair shake in life and he wanted to make things better for them.”
Said daughter Natalie: “I used to tell him, ‘You were cool before it was cool.’ He’d go down Beale Street selling tickets and that was his goal. Daddy was comfortable around anyone.”
‘Black is beautiful’
In the early 1970s, Monroe and black pro wrestler Norvell Austin teamed up to be a villainous duo. Such a pair - white and black - was unheard of at the time.
Austin dyed a streak of his hair white to match Monroe’s famed streak. During interviews, Monroe would boast, “Black is beautiful,” and Austin would reply, “White is wonderful.”
“They looked weird, but their talent overcame everything, any prejudice,” said “Bullet” Bob Armstrong, the Pensacola patriarch of the Armstrong wrestling family.
He continued, “Sputnik was one of the most talented wrestlers I’ve ever seen. He was special. He was the first guy I ever saw compete in a two-ring battle royal and who backdropped in ring No. 1 and then sailed into ring No. 2. My mouth just about fell to the floor.”
Armstrong so admired Monroe that he would playfully yell “Sputnik” at his own dogs.
Monroe kept on wrestling in the South as the years passed, even as small-city tussles lost their luster and powerhouse federations strode upon the ring scene, featuring stables of sculpted young stars appealing to a national audience.
Later in life, his grappling days done, he became a regular face the annual Gulf Coast wrestler’s reunion in Mobile. “He was just like anyone else here … telling old stories. And he sure had some old stories to tell,” said Ron Raines, a longtime Gulf Coast wrestling promoter who coordinates the gathering that occurs in early March.
Monroe died in 2006, in Edgewater, Florida. He was 77 years old and is buried in Pineville, Louisiana.
In Memphis and elsewhere, Monroe’s legend is finding new audiences. He’s recognized with a display at the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. His modern-day fans recognized “National Sputnik Monroe Day” in 2011. In 2016, singer-songwriter Otis Gibb produced a song in Monroe’s honor. In 2017, Monroe was inducted into the Pro-Wrestling Hall of Fame in Wichita Falls, Texas. HBO is even teasing a possible biopic on his life.
But he’s been overlooked, thus far, by the World Wrestling Entertainment empire, the WWE, the present-day dominant force in pro wrestling.
The WWE, since 2016, has honored wrestlers from the early part of the 20th century by inducting them posthumously to the “Legacy” wing of its Hall of Fame.
Two black wrestling stars credited with advancing racial integration are already in the Hall: “Bearcat” Wright and “Sailor” Art Thomas.
WWE adds new wrestlers each year to its Hall of Fame during a ceremony ahead of the annual Wrestlemania pay-per-view blowout. This year’s version, Wrestlemania 34, will be held April 8 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. More than 75,000 people are expected to attend, and the city is anticipating close to $200 million in economic impact during the weekend event.
Lawler said he thinks it would be appropriate for the WWE to acknowledge Monroe on a Wrestlemania weekend. But, as Lawler notes, “Sputnik Monroe, unfortunately, was only recognized in a small part of the South simply because that was the way things were back in the day.”
He said he hopes to get the company to broadcast the 2011 documentary “Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’” on the WWE Network. “It’s a great documentary about Sputnik Monroe and what he meant to the Memphis wrestling scene,” Lawler said.
Dougherty, Monroe’s old friend, said that the WWE is “missing the boat.” He went on tell a story of Monroe coming to visit Memphis not long before he died. “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.”
Information from: The Birmingham News, http://www.al.com/birminghamnews
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