AS I SEE IT 11/6: A real-life hero...who happened to be a wrestler

Bob Magee
Pro Wrestling: Between the Sheets

Rocco Monroe Brumbaugh....known better to the wrestling world as wrestling legend Sputnik Monroe... died in his sleep on Friday in Florida.

Sputnik was a legendary character in the true oldtime wrestling manner and there are hundreds of stories that are probably being shared around the wrestling world right as you read this. There are nice articles on as well as by Dory Funk.

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 is well-told on the Rocco Monroe Brumbaugh singlehandedly started the process of desegregating not just wrestling...but entertainment overall in Memphis, TN.

The story 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 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 teamm which was unheard of at the time.

Now in 2006... for those who've grown up in a world where anyone travels on a bus...sits in a movie theatre or sports arena...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. Racial separation in public transportation was an accepted fact. Separate water fountains for blacks and whites existed throughout the South. Blacks were kept from eating in most restaurants and from attending (white) public schools.

As the civil rights movement slowly unfolded through the 1950s and 1960s, blacks and whites lost their lives attempting to desegregate the South. Thousands of others 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.

There is little tangible 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.

Until next time...

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