“Sputnik” Monroe, aka Rock Brumbaugh, was Memphis’s most famous wrestler in the 1950s and 60s, and a most unlikely champion of civil rights. He died at age 78 in Edgewater, Florida.
Robert Gordon’s 1995 book, It Came From Memphis, details the rise of Sputnik, who “arrived in Memphis in 1957, 220 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal,” and began “rasslin'” at the Ellis Auditorium. This venue, like virtually every other in Memphis at that time, was segregated. A limited number of black wrestling fans sat in a small balcony called the Crows Nest at the top and to the rear of the Auditorium.
Sputnik, a white man, played to this black audience, looking to them for approval after dominating his opponents, and they responded in growing numbers, turning out in the thousands to attend his matches. The management tried to limit the numbers of black attendees, and Sputnik threatened to quit. The wrestler’s action led to the end of the Crows Nest.
Jim Dickinson, the legendary Memphis musician and producer, is quoted in the book as saying “that really is how integration in Memphis started.”
National Public Radio’s Morning Edition did a story on Sputnik Monroe in 2001, and you can hear him describing his exploits.