Sputnik Monroe, Unsung Civil Rights Hero

Sputnik Monroe, born Roscoe Monroe Brumbaugh, was a civil rights pioneer. He was also a professional wrestler in Memphis, Tennessee.

Race, pop culture, politics — Sputnik drop-kicked them to the canvas by palling around with “coloreds” and insisting on the desegregation of wrestling matches at Ellis Auditorium at a time when the rule of Jim Crow was as accepted as the teaching of Jesus Christ. But what else could vexed white Memphians have expected from an iron-jawed ironist who took his scandalous stage name from the Soviet satellite that was the ultimate symbol of omnipresent anti-American menace? (Commercial Appeal)

Monroe was primarily responsible for integrating professional wrestling, when he realized that black fans should be allowed out of the balcony and to sit wherever they wanted. He insisted they should watch wrestling matches from the same places as white fans in Ellis Auditorium.

In 1960, he was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct for “drinking in a negro cafe with negroes.” He spent his time on Beale Street palling around with African Americans, and this upset many white folks. It was this charge that led to what the judge recalled was the first time a white man was represented in City Court by a negro attorney. That attorney was Russell B. Sugarmon Jr., who would later become a General Sessions judge. Sputnik was fined $26, and no appeal was made.

A canny self-promoter and image-maker with a politician’s instinct for making hay out of racial antipathy and cultural resentment, Sputnik continued to rile up fans in Memphis and the South long after desegregation. In 1971, Sputnik and African-American wrestler Norvell Austin formed one of the first interracial tag teams; Sputnik would pour black paint onto immobilized opponents and chant “Black is beautiful!” while Austin — who had added a blond stripe to his afro — would shout “White is beautiful!”

Monroe passed away September 3, 2006. He was inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame this year. Friday, March 24th is “Sputnik Monroe Day” in Memphis and Shelby County, celebrated since 2011, which coincides with the release of “Memphis Heat: The True Story of Memphis Wrasslin’.”

“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.” (Wash Times)

Sputnik Monroe did a great deal for the Civil Rights Movement through his sport, but he may have been overlooked because he was “just a wrestler.” This amazing athlete used his drawing power to help people in a way that we unfortunately do not see much of in today’s climate. As African-American athletes struggle to bring attention to the injustices faced by their brothers and sisters, a few more like Monroe would certainly make a huge difference.

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