As I See It: Looking Back At Wrestler Who Helped Desegregate Memphis Wrestling

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On the day in the United States where we remember the birthday of civil-rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it's worth reprinting this story about a white wrestler who helped desegregate Memphis wrestling; no small feat in the 1950's American South.

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 oldtime 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.

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 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."

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