A lot of people may not be familiar with the name Sputnik Monroe. In the 1950s and 1960s there wasn’t a bigger star in the world of Memphis Wrestling. He was a top tier heel and headlined around NWA Southern Territories but made his biggest impact in Memphis. The rivalry between Billy Wicks and Monroe broke numerous gate records that stood almost 40 years.
Monroe had a colorful in ring persona that he described as “twisted steel and sex appeal”. What he maybe most known for today is his work against segregation in Memphis. He got the name Sputnik due to an incident in Alabama. While on the road Monroe grew, tired and happened to come upon a black hitchhiker whom he picked up and let drive him the rest of way to the arena. Monroe was thankful for the man and walked with the man into the building with his arm around the man which drew the ire of white fans in Alabama and an elderly lady told him that he “was nothing but a Sputnick”. This was seen as a derogatory term as it was name of the hated Russian satellite. The name stuck with and was embraced by Monroe for the remainder of his career.
In 1958 Monroe made his way to the Memphis Territory. When he hit, town spent a lot of time on Beale Street where there were a lot of black businesses. Sputnik would hang out the people, have a drink and pass out tickets to the local wrestling shows. Black fans at the time would have to sit in the upper balcony at shows knows as the “Crow’s Nest”. Like most venues in the south at the time the Ellis Auditorium where big wrestling events took place was segregated. The floor section of the arena was for whites only. The venue would turn away black customers if the upper-deck was full, while the floor section was half empty. Monroe thought this was crazy both morally and as a business strategy.
The act that made Monroe a legend around town was his arrest in 1960 for drinking at a black establishment. The first time it happened he was fined 26 dollars for the infraction and he amazed many people at the time as he chose black lawyer Russell Sugarmon for his legal representation. Judge Beverly Boushe who handed down he fine told reporters that this was the first he could ever think of seeing a white man defended by a black attorney. Monroe violated this social order a few more times and was charged with the vague crime of “mopery”. This made him a fan favorite of the African American community and increased his bad guy status among white fans.
With the black crowd cheering him at the shows Monroe would frequently shout his people in the upper balcony area. He put pressure on promoters to allow fans to sit wherever they liked. He would bribe venue employees who admitted customers to allow more black patrons than the upper section would hold so once the spill over happened there was no choice but to let the customers sit where they wanted. Using his power as a top draw Monroe would tell promoters that he would not perform if they didn’t let his black friends in. This helped desegregate wrestling venues in the territory and became Monroe’s enduring legacy.
Keith B. Holt
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