Sputnik Monroe

Sputnik Monroe, the great rassler who rocked the South and broke down racial barriers, passed away in early November.
Sputnik was right up there with Jimmy Reed as a Great Emancipator of the South paving the way for the Civil Rights movement.
I first heard about him from Jim Dickinson, the wise musical sage of Memphis and north Mississippi, who held him in high regard, easily the equal of Elvis Presley as a Force to Be Reckoned With. Robert Gordon wrote eloquently of Sputnik in the book It Came From Memphis. Three years ago, I sat at his living room table in Katy, Texas, west of Houston in a room surrounded by memorabilia recording the history of this storied Heel (bad guy) recording his story as part of the Voices of Civil Rights oral history project and for the book My Soul Looks Back in Wonder by Juan Williams (Sterling) which tells personal stories of transformation in the Civil Rights struggle. Here's the raw version: Sputnik Monroe, 75, born December 18, 1928, retired professional wrestler. Interviewed October, 13, 2003 at his home, 6719 Valerian, Katy, Texas 77449

I’m Sputnik Monroe, the World’s Greatest Wrestler--two hundred thirty five pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal with a body women love and men fear, rough, tough, and hard to bluff. You figure it out. I was born Roscoe Monroe Merrick. My mother's father was Andrew Jackson Gosay, a bare-fist fighter. He got me started with the punching bag. He lived in a little town, Watonga, Oklahoma. I'd go down there in the summertime. He'd buy everybody who would box me a round or two an ice cream cone. So I got started early.

I started wrestling when I was in the ninth grade. My coach, Stub Mayo said that I didn't have a lot of finesse, but I might kill somebody with my aggressiveness. When I was 20 years old. I started wrestling with a carnival taking on all comers. If they survived, they’d get five bucks. If you beat 'em they didn’t get nothing. I never paid anyone. I started wrestling through a promoter in Kansas City named Paul Christy. I wrestled on all the St. Louis cards, Evansville and all the little towns around. My name was Pretty Boy Rocque, R-O-C-Q-U-E, Rocque. The promoter in Louisville, Kentucky thought I looked like Elvis, so they called me Elvis Roc Monroe. When you say Roc Monroe fast it sounds like Rock and Roll.

I was what’s called a heel in professional wrestling, and I was the world's greatest. I'd wink at pretty girls and wave my hand and make the guy sitting next to her hot. Once, I was struttin' with my bag and this woman stopped in front of me and told me I was an arrogant son of a bitch and slapped me. I dropped the bag and done a pose for her and says, “How does it feel to touch a real man?”

Mobile, Alabama was the beginning of my razoo with the blacks. I’d driven from Seattle to Greenville, Mississippi and I pooped out. I was drinking coffee and every five or ten miles, I’d stop and get out and walk around the car. In Greenville, there was little black guy hitchhiking. So I asked him if he could drive. He said, “Yes, sir”, he could drive.

I said, “All right, we’re going to Mobile, Alabama to the television station. And if you speed or anything I'm going break both your legs 'cause I'm going to take a little nap. He cruised all the way to the television station. When we got there, we got out of the car. He carried my bag and I put my arm around him. An old lady saw that, and called me a “nigger-lovin' MF”.

When I was a kid, I worked in my stepdad's bakery and we had several blacks working there. And they were always shucking and jiving and laughing and helping me clean mixers and do stuff. But they always helped me.

The lady who insulted me on the way into the TV studio inspired me. When I went on TV, when the curtain opened, I had my arm around the little black guy. That set that lady off to cussing. The security guard told her if she kept cursing, she was going to have to leave.

She said, “Well, what that son-of-a-bitch really is, is a goddamn Sputnik.”

I threw up my hands. Hell, the Russian Sputnik satellite had gone up three days before and I didn’t know nothin' about it. I didn’t know what the hell a sputnik was. But everybody picked up on it--the ring announcer, the commentator, everybody picked up on it. That was a Saturday night. Monday when I went to work I did a radio interview. The announcer asked, “Well, Sputnik, what do you think of the South?” The name sputnik angered a lot of people. That started it.

The promoter in Mobile got a chance of buying the promotion of Memphis and surrounding towns such as Jackson. They never had the kind of attendance that I produced for 'em before. The blond streak in my hair and my loud mouth brought in the crowds. I was selling it out. I'd tell them, “Sit down, ignorant, everybody knows you're here.” But the blacks loved me. I was called the General of the Little Nigger Army. It was like jungle drums. I think they passed the word around from Mobile to Memphis. I embraced them. I hung out on Beale Street in various and sundry pool halls and theaters and Lansky Brothers, the place where Elvis bought his clothes.

On the Saturday morning wrestling show on television, the studio had room for ten blacks. At Ellis Auditorium where we wrestled, there were about 90 seats in the high, high balcony where blacks could sit. That was it.

In 1958, I told the manager of the Ellis Auditorium if they didn’t let my black friends in, I was going to leave. I told them, “If you don't let my colored friends in I'm leaving.”

You would have thought I declared independence when I told 'em that if they don't make room for my black friends I'm going to leave. I wasn’t making any false accusations or anything. I do what I say I'm going to do. The promoters were interested in doing business with me and giving me my way. They knew I wasn't a bull shitter. If I told you I was leaving I'm leaving.

There was a real fear something would happen. The mayor asked me not to do that. He told me I shouldn’t be creating racial differences. I said, “There's not any racial differences-- they're black, I'm white, we know it.” I told him if he said anything else to me about it, I'd knock him on his ass.

A great big fat black lady at a dance with a live band went into labor on a dance floor. And she said, “I'm having Sputnik.” What do you think that done? Every son of a bitch in Memphis that's white was mad.

But the promoters didn't want the loss at the box office, so they said, “Yes, sir.” That's all they could say to me. The stage in the Ellis Auditorium was in the middle of the building. The south side was elevated for bands, with a band pit. So they opened the curtains and put 2,000 more people in there –all of them black. For about a month they'd be a couple of thousand standing outside waiting to get in. They didn't have seating for 'em.

A year later several people came to me and wanted me to run for sheriff. And I said, I'm not a stooge. I don't know nothin' about the law and order and I'm not going to have somebody telling me what to do or when to do it or how to do it or anything. I don't take orders very good.

I had a lot of fights on the street: “Take a swing at me. Call me a son-of-a-bitch, a nigger-loving son-of-a-bitch.“ I was tougher than anybody they had in Memphis, Tennessee.

I was with two black wrestlers I don't remember their names--and we stopped in some little town in Mississippi and they went in the back door and I went with 'em. I damn near caused a riot 'cause I went to the black section. All the white people got hot.

I was always shucking and jiving with blacks. I could say “nigger” to them, but no other white person could. It was acceptable. Twenty years later I had a black tag team partner, Norvell Austin. I put a streak in his hair. We would be around a bunch of young blacks and I'd say, “Come here, you little nigger.” He'd say, “Be easy on that, you'll insult somebody.” I was used to the old crowd where I could say that and not offend anybody.

I went back to Beale Street two years ago and got hugged and kissed on Beale Street. People told me they loved me for what I did for them. Although they didn't see me wrestle, their parents or their grandparents or somebody told them about me. I made a big difference in their city. And we should have done that in a lot of cities. It's hard to realize that I was a big, big part of that. It brings tears to my eyes when they hug me and my wife and tell me they love me and that I was the greatest.

It’s a very emotional thing for me to go to Memphis and be recognized and hugged and kissed and complimented. I have no idea why. It wasn’t something that was premeditated. It just kind of fell into place. The Man upstairs must have had something to do with this. I'm not a psychiatrist. I don't try to figure people out. If I can't figure them out I kick their ass.

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