sputnik monroe: twisted steel and sex appeal

I’ll jump in the air and shit in your hair.” — Sputnik Monroe


by mike morgan


When Hollywood decided to make a big-budget flick about the civil rights movement in this country, they opted for the story of the murders of Michael Schwerner, James Cheney and Andrew Goodman, three Freedom Summer workers who disappeared one night in May 1964, from a jail in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and were tortured and killed by racists in the swamps. The movie was called “Mississippi Burning,” and it was an appalling attempt at rewriting history. In the film, the FBI acted out the role of the liberation movement, a la Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe. Think of the civil rights movement and which individuals and organizations are immediately associated with it: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Fanie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, Medgar Evers, H. Rap Brown, SNCC, SCLC, to name some. It takes an extremely fertile imagination to lump the Federal Bureau of Investigation in with this crowd, but that didn’t stop Hollywood. This proves that the passage of time allows important social events to be described, popularized and willingly digested in a manner quite contrary to reality. What follows is a small contribution to offsetting that avalanche of distortion.Any movement, particularly one as broad and vital as the US civil rights movement, has its own divergent cast of characters. The leaders, martyrs, and charismatic spokespeople are those most remembered. Yet there were others, many others, who voted with their feet, who filled the trenches and the jail cells with their bodies, who felt the pain from the water cannons and the billy- clubs, and, without whom, there would have been no progress. Then there were those who might not even have associated themselves with such a political movement, but whose behaviour and actions in the public arena pursued the movement’s goals, whether consciously or not. And while the book entitled “White Heroes of the American Civil Rights Movement” might be vying with “Great English Lovers” or “The Complete A to Z of Italian War Heroes” as winner of the thinnest volume in the world award, there were white people here that played a positive role in the yet-to-be-won fight for justice. This is the true story of one such abolitionist, a wrestler from Memphis by the name of Sputnik Monroe.

Standing on the corner I didn’t mean no harm Along came the police And took me by the arm It was down in Memphis, The corner of Beale and Main He said “Big Boy, You’re gonna have to tell me your name!” Well you can find my name on the tail of my shirt, I’m a Tennessee hustler and I don’t have to work. — Jimmie Rogers

When Sputnik Monroe arrived in Memphis in 1957, by way of Mobile, Alabama, he immediately ran into trouble with the police. His favorite hang-out was the black neighborhood around Beale Street, and that made him the target for the local gendarmes. In those days, there was a vagrancy law entitled “Mopery and Attempted Gawk.” Sputnik could mope and gawk with the best of them.

There were many aspects of Sputnik’s persona and character that set him apart from his wrestling peers. Early in his fighting career, he had been beaned on the head by an opposing pugilist using a wooden chair as a weapon. When the wood splinters were removed from his scalp, a patch of white hair grew around the wound. Sputnik beat out the punks for colored hair by a good twenty years.

Sputnik was a mean brawler. His self-definition of his wrestling style was “scientifically rough.” When asked to elaborate on this, he explained, “Win if you can, lose if you must, always cheat, and if they take you out, leave tearing down the ring.”

But Sputnik Monroe’s most important contribution to Memphis’ society was the fact that he single-handedly desegregated the wrestling spectator community. 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 fucking 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 goddamn 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.

He even went as far as announcing himself as a candidate for sheriff. “People thought prostitution and incest would flourish, ‘motherfucker’ would become a household word,” he said. “I could have run for mayor, and made it. I could have blackmailed the city. I could have done anything I wanted. I was general of a little black army.” Johnny Black recalls, “If you would have had some kind of election about who was the best-known face in Memphis at that time – Sputnik, Elvis or the mayor – Sputnik would have been real close to Elvis.”

Sputnik Monroe’s career included a stint with a midget wrestler (the first such combination of its kind) that developed into a tag team, and merely added to Sputnik’s quirky reputation. He suffered ups and downs throughout the ’60’s, and by 1972 he was back in Memphis, looking for a new angle. It was then that he came up with his tour-de-force, an interracial tag team. Sputnik reemerged with his black partner, Norvell Austin, and Norvell had a blond streak in his hair. In one of their first fights together on television, Norvell and Sputnik were wailing away against their battered foes and, when the other side was finally down for the count, Sputnik poured a bucket of black paint over the head of one of the vanquished wrestlers. Sputnik loudly announced, “Black is beautiful.” Norvell then chimed up, “White is beautiful.” Then they hugged each other and proclaimed together, “Black and white is beautiful.” Sputnik was so geeked that he later confided gleefully to a friend, “They hate me again.” Norvell and Sputnik crisscrossed the country for three years doing their thing. At one point, it was even rumored that Norvell was Sputnik’s son. The champions of racial purity must have been shitting in their pants.

One could argue that wrestling is such pantomime, buffoonery and pre-choreographed schtick, that all of this was just an act. But the results speak for themselves. Sputnik Monroe helped change some important things in Memphis, for the better and forever. And he used his craft to do it. That’s what a good fighter is all about. And that’s why he was part of the movement, whether he fesses up to it or not. Pretty powerful thing.

“I never let anybody get out of there a winner.” — Sputnik Monroe


This article originally appeared in Lurch Magazine


Originally published:
Issue Six
February 2001
(Primary Source: “It Came From Memphis” by Robert Gordon)

A Brooklynite by way of Wales and South Africa, Mike Morgan is the founder of Burrow Magazine and serves as one of its Senior Editors and Contributors. In addition to these duties, he has been and continues to be at the heart of a thriving literary, art and music scene and is a regular at several neighborhood bars, where he can be found discussing global and local affairs, rock and roll, various New York sports teams, and whatever books he happens to be reading at the time.  More from Mike Morgan can be found in the Vault of Smoke.

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