Real King of Memphis Sputnik Monroe wrestled with civil rights issues in South
MEMPHIS -- In his own words, Sputnik Monroe was "235 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal with a body that women loved and men feared." He also was the most improbable civil rights hero the South has ever seen. As visitors who came here for the recent Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson fight strolled through the city's Rock 'n' Soul Museum, they saw exhibits on Elvis Presley, B.B. King and Otis Redding - and one display that seemed out of place: a gold wrestling jacket, flowered trunks and wrestling shoes with a plaque that read, "Sputnik Monroe played a major part in destroying the color lines in Memphis entertainment venues." Roscoe Brumbaugh, otherwise known as Sputnik Monroe in the wild world of professional wrestling, was honored at the Rock 'n' Soul Museum for his instrumental role in the integration of public events in the Tennessee city. At a time in the late 1950s and early 1960s when blacks and whites sat in segregated sections, Monroe embraced the black community, encouraging blacks to watch him wrestle and sit wherever they wanted. "He was a hero to the black community in Memphis," said Jim Ogle, director of operations at the Rock 'n' Soul Museum. "I've always been a rebel," said Monroe, now 74 (he said he wrestled on and off until four years ago) and living in Houston, Texas, where he is recovering from surgery for lung cancer. "I've always been for the underdog. It didn't seem like a big deal to me, but it seemed to make everyone there mad, and I liked that." It was a big deal. Monroe was one of the most popular and colorful figures in Memphis in those days, right up there with Elvis. In Robert Gordon's book, "It Came From Memphis," Johnny Dark, then a sportscaster in the city, said, "If you would have had some kind of election about who was the best known face in Memphis at the time - Sputnik, Elvis, the mayor - Sputnik would have been real close to Elvis." He had a look that got people's attention - a white streak running down through his hair - and a wild streak a mile wide. "One time I laid down in the street at the intersection of Union and Main and stopped traffic," he said. "They sent six policemen to come get me, and I told them they didn't have enough, so they got six more and took me off to jail. I did it just for the hell of it. It seemed like I was always fighting with the city over one thing or another." City leaders did not like a popular white man like Monroe spending his time socializing in black clubs on Beale Street. "I got arrested once for vagrancy for hanging out on Beale Street," he said. "I got a colored lawyer and went to court. I told them this was the United States of America, and I could go wherever I damned well pleased. They fined me $25, but after about a half-dozen arrests, they gave up." Monroe, born in Dodge City, Kan., said he was colorblind when it came to people, something he learned growing up working in a bakery where his father was a superintendent. Monroe worked with the blacks who cleaned the mixers, and it was there he formed his opinions about people before he entered a world he learned was separate but hardly equal. He started wrestling at East High School in Wichita, but his coach, Stub Mayo, was worried about safety when Monroe stepped on the mat. "He said I didn't have a lot of finesse, but I might kill somebody," Monroe said. One time, Monroe went to a carnival traveling through town, and part of the show was a wrestler who took on all comers. Monroe took a shot and beat the wrestler, winning a handful of cash and getting an offer to join the show. "I slept in the ring," he said, "I was lucky to get three square meals a day, but I loved it." Monroe was called "Pretty Boy Rocque, the Hollywood Dandy" back then and spent several years traveling around the Midwest and West wrestling at carnival shows. He then hooked up with a promoter and spent about four years on the small-time circuit, wrestling locals in small towns. He remembered once trying to get a local cowboy star to wrestle him. He insulted the cowboy, but that didn't work, so he insulted the cowboy's wife, and that didn't do it, either. Monroe said the cowboy finally jumped in the ring to wrestle when Monroe punched the guy's horse at the carnival. Sometimes he found himself in some tough spots, such as one night in Marshall, Ark. "One time I had a guy down with his arm up behind him, and I told him to give up," Monroe said. "He said, 'I can't.' He didn't say it loud enough for everyone to hear, so I said again, 'Give up or I'll break your arm.' Everyone heard me, including the local sheriff, who threatened to shoot me if I broke this guy's arm. I said, 'He's gonna give up, or I'll hold him here until he starves to death.' I held him down until the sheriff counted to three." He moved up to bigger wrestling shows in St. Louis and Louisville. The promoter in Louisville thought he looked like Elvis Presley, so he changed his name to Elvis Rock Monroe. "It sounded like rock and roll," Monroe said. "I would carry a guitar into the ring. I think I could play one chord and then get the hell beat out of me with my own guitar." Naturally, he moved on to Memphis in 1958 and was an immediate hit. This was the time of Elvis and Sam Phillips and Sun Records - Monroe even trained Phillips' 12-year-old son, Jerry, to be part of his act as a "midget" wrestler - and Monroe fit right in. He loved the Beale Street lifestyle, and soon became a favorite of black wrestling fans at the Monday night wrestling shows at Ellis Auditorium. However, black fans were limited to about 75 seats in the highest balcony of the auditorium. One night, Monroe convinced a friend who worked at the blacks-only ticket window to allow several hundred black fans to buy tickets. When they filled up the balcony and began spilling over into the whites-only section, the promoter tried to kick them out. Monroe wouldn't stand for it. "I told him if you can't make room for my friends, I'm leaving," he said. The promoter relented, and soon there were more than 1,000 black fans coming to see Monroe wrestle in Memphis. "That had never happened before in the city for an event," he said. "I just accepted them like I always did." Later in his career, he even had a black tag-team partner, Norvell Austin, and they had an act that started after they defeated an opponent, who was usually 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 the South, that would infuriate fans, which only encouraged Monroe. First and foremost, Monroe was a wrestler, and his battles with the likes of Terry Funk, Cowboy Bill Watts and others were the stuff of lore throughout the South. "One time Bill Watts kicked me and broke my arm," Monroe said. "I didn't know it was broken. There xwas a lump on the side of my arm, and in the next match, the bone got shoved out of the skin. I had lots of broken bones and hundreds of stitches. I never won any beauty contests." But how did he get the name Sputnik? Before he arrived in Memphis, he was driving through Mississippi on his way to a show in Greenwood. "I was running late and couldn't stop driving," Monroe said. "I picked up a black hitchhiker and told him to drive while I slept. 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. "This one old lady was cursing at me like a sailor in the arena," he said. "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 damned Sputnik,'" referring to the Soviet satellite that had just been launched into space. "I was Sputnik Monroe after that." Monroe said he didn't see himself as any sort of civil rights hero. "I did what came naturally," he said. "But you know, it's hard to be humble when you're a man like me. One time I was strutting around at a baseball game in Mobile, Ala., and a woman came up to me, called me arrogant and slapped me in the face. I said, 'How does it feel for a broad like you to touch a real man?'" It turns out he was right. Sputnik Monroe was a real man.